The Essential Guide to Employment Discrimination Claims and Lawsuits

Learn how to file a successful employment discrimination claim. State and federal laws can help you overcome discrimination in the workplace.

In the United States, one of the earliest laws prohibiting workplace discrimination arose from an executive order signed by President Roosevelt in 1941.

It banned discrimination against war workers based on race, creed, color, or national origin. ¹

Title VII of the Civil Rights Act was signed into law in 1964, prohibiting workplace discrimination based on religion, color, race, sex, or national origin.

Today, the law recognizes many more forms of employee discrimination, depending on the type of employer and the kind of discrimination. ²

The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) was created to enforce federal laws that make it illegal to discriminate against a job applicant or employee in the workplace. The EEOC has the authority to investigate complaints made by individuals covered under anti-discrimination laws.

Every American state has enacted employment discrimination laws. Many states have laws similar to federal civil rights laws, with protections for additional classes of workers and more stringent rules for employers.

Workers not covered by federal law can often pursue claims through state or local anti-discrimination policies.

Here’s where we unpack how to prove employment discrimination, file a formal complaint, and pursue the compensation you deserve.

Filing an Employment Discrimination Charge

The EEOC is responsible for enforcing federal laws that make it illegal to discriminate against an employee or job applicant based on:

  • Race
  • Color
  • Religion
  • Sex (including pregnancy, gender identity, or sexual orientation)
  • National origin
  • Age (over 40)
  • Disability
  • Genetic information (such as family medical history)

The EEOC also enforces laws that protect workers who face retaliation because they complained about discrimination, filed a charge of discrimination, or participated in an employment discrimination investigation or lawsuit.

The EEOC generally covers claims involving employers who have 15 or more employees for at least 20 weeks of the current or past year.

Figuring out if the EEOC covers an employer can be complicated, so don’t hesitate to contact an EEOC office or consult an attorney.

You may file an employment discrimination lawsuit against the at-fault employer for any of the laws enforced by the EEOC. However, before filing a lawsuit (except for equal pay complaints), you must first file a “Charge of Discrimination.”

Find the EEOC office nearest you with this EEOC Office List and Jurisdictional Map.

Charge of Discrimination

A charge of discrimination is a signed, written statement that an employer, union, or labor organization is involved in employment discrimination. The EOCC is required by law to act on your complaint.

Beware: Time Limits for Filing a Charge of Discrimination

Generally, you only have 180 days from the date the discrimination took place to file a charge with the EEOC. Under some circumstance, there may be an extension of time allowed, depending on the type of discrimination and your state laws.

Federal employees and applicants only have 45 days and must contact an agency EEOC counselor within that time.

Equal Pay Discrimination

Federal laws prohibit payment of wages and benefits based on sex, meaning men and women in the same workplace should receive equal pay for equal work. All forms of pay and benefits are covered, including bonuses, overtime, vacation pay, and so on.

You can file a lawsuit for wage discrimination against your employer without first filing a Charge of Discrimination with the EEOC. The time limit for filing an Equal Pay lawsuit or an EEOC Charge of Discrimination are both two years.

Fair Employment Protection Agencies

States and local jurisdictions (often large metropolitan areas) have their own anti-discrimination laws and agencies to oversee enforcement called Fair Employment Protection Agencies (FEPAs).

State and local laws will never be “easier” on a discriminating employer than federal (Title VII) laws.

On the other hand, many states have more robust employment discrimination laws, covering more areas of discrimination than are available through the EEOC. For example, Title VII doesn’t cover discrimination based on medical condition, arrest record, or military status. The state of California does.

Find your work location on this chart of State Laws on Employment Discrimination.

If you file your discrimination charge with your closest FEPA, your charge is automatically “dual-filed” with the EEOC. You don’t have to file a separate claim with state and federal agencies.

Remember, federal workers and applicants must follow a different complaint process.

What to Expect After an EEOC Filing

You are encouraged to register with the EEOC Public Portal for easy online access to your case. You can use the portal to check status, upload documents in support of your case, upload a letter of representation from your attorney, and more.

Employer Notice: Within ten days of your charge, the EEOC will notify the employer about the charge of discrimination.

Sometimes, you and the employer will be asked to attend mediation to attempt resolution of the issues.

Case Closed: If the EEOC decides to close your case, you’ll be notified. Your case may be closed if:

  • You missed the filing deadline
  • The EEOC doesn’t enforce laws that apply to the type of discrimination in your complaint
  • The EEOC doesn’t believe they can determine if a law was violated

Investigation: If you don’t have mediation, or mediation fails to resolve the issue, the employer will be asked for a “Respondent’s Position Statement” which is a written answer to your charges of discrimination.

You’ll be given access to a copy of the employer’s answer. You’ll have 20 days from the date you get a copy of the employer’s answer to send your written response.

Discrimination claims are high-stakes and time sensitive. You are entitled to have an experienced attorney handle your claim for the best outcome.

The EEOC’s investigation can take several months and may involve site visits, interviews, and requests to the employer for documents.

Compensation for Discrimination Charges

Victims of employment discrimination can expect to receive compensatory damages, and sometimes punitive damages when the employer is found to have violated the law.

Punitive damages are monetary penalties meant to punish the guilty employer for particularly malicious or egregious acts of discrimination.

Compensatory damages include your actual losses, such as lost wages, expenses for job searches, medical expenses, and an amount for your emotional distress.

Your total compensation will be limited by the size of the at-fault employer:

  • For employers with 15-100 employees, the limit is $50,000
  • For employers with 101-200 employees, the limit is $100,000
  • For employers with 201-500 employees, the limit is $200,000
  • For employers with more than 500 employees, the limit is $300,000

The amount of compensation awarded in class action lawsuits against large corporations will be multiplied to reflect the number of discrimination victims in the class.

Case Summary: Class Action for Sex Discrimination 

Muriel Kraszewski was a California resident who became the named plaintiff in a class-action lawsuit accusing State Farm Insurance Company of employment discrimination against women.

Kraszewski and numerous other women complained that State Farm engaged in statewide discrimination concerning the recruitment, hiring and training of women for sales agent positions, in violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act.

At trial, the court found that women who tried to become sales agents at State Farm were “lied to, misinformed, and discouraged in their efforts…”

Kraszewski and the class won their case. State Farm was forced to change their recruitment and hiring practices, and the class received $250 million in monetary relief.

EEOC Notice of Your Right to Sue

You are not allowed to file a lawsuit against the employer in federal court until you have a Notice of Right to Sue from the EEOC. You need the notice when your charges of discrimination are based on race, color, religion, sex or national origin; or based on disability under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).

Usually, you must give the EEOC up to 180 days to resolve your complaint, although you can ask for a Notice of Right to Sue to be issued earlier.

If the EEOC is unable to determine if the employer violated the law, you’ll be sent a Notice of Right to Sue.

You don’t need a Notice of Right to Sue for claims based on:

Age: Lawsuits for age discrimination (over 40) may be filed 60 days after filing your EEOC charge.

Equal Pay: You must file your lawsuit for wage discrimination based on sex within two years from the day you received your last discriminatory paycheck.

If the EEOC is unable to determine that discrimination laws have been violated, you’ll be issued a Notice of Right to Sue.

If the EEOC determines a law may have been violated they could:

  1. Try to settle with the employer. If settlement negotiations fail, the EEOC will refer the case to their legal staff to see if the EEOC should file a lawsuit on your behalf.
  2. Decide not to file an agency lawsuit and issue a Notice of Right to Sue to allow you to file a lawsuit in court on your own.

Case Summary: EEOC Lawsuit for Religious Discrimination

Samantha Elauf was a 17-year old practicing Muslim who wore a headscarf in accordance with her religious beliefs when she applied for a job at Abercrombie & Fitch.

Elauf was interviewed by an assistant store manager who rated Elauf as qualified for the job. The assistant manager asked her superiors for clarification on the company dress code and was told not to hire Elauf, as the company’s “Look Policy” prohibited wearing hats at work.

The EEOC successfully sued Abercrombie & Fitch in district court on Elauf’s behalf. However, the decision was later overturned by the circuit court on appeal, who found that the store was not liable because Elauf had not notified the store of her need for a “religious accommodation.”

The case ultimately went to the United States Supreme Court, who found that Elauf did not have to explicitly request an accommodation to obtain protection under Title VII, which prohibits religious discrimination in hiring.

Elauf won her employment discrimination case, and her award of $20,000 was reinstated.

Winning an Employment Discrimination Claim

A successful employment discrimination claim depends on good information and as much convincing evidence as you can gather to support your case.

Write everything down: Taking good notes will help you organize your thoughts and have important information ready for your claim.

Write down your contact information, including your name, address, home and cell phone numbers, email address, and all the contact information about your employer you can gather, including the company website.

Write a description of the discrimination you suffered, with dates and details of each incident. Be sure to include the name and title of any supervisors, human resources personnel, or anyone else who was involved in the situation, even if they weren’t the person in charge.

If there was more than one type of discrimination, include them all with details of what happened and who was involved.

Organize your paperwork: Keep copies of “help wanted” ads, paystubs, employee evaluations, the employee handbook, emails, and any other documents or communications from the employer. Your organized paperwork will help support your claim.

Identify witnesses: You can speak with another employee to see if they are willing to provide a written statement describing what they know about the discrimination. Ask them to sign and date their witness statement.

If you’re afraid to talk to other employees, you can still write down the names of anyone whom you believe knows about the discrimination. Your attorney or the EEOC investigators will need to know about potential witnesses or other victims of the discrimination.

Attorneys Protect Your Rights

Employment discrimination lawsuits are extremely complicated, technical, and stressful. It’s very difficult to win your case, much less get fair compensation, if you’re trying to represent yourself in state or federal court.

You can be certain counsel will represent the employer, and if you’re facing off against a large corporation, they will be standing behind a team of lawyers and experts. The more money is involved, the harder they will fight.

You owe it to yourself to talk to an attorney. Most attorneys won’t charge for a consultation and will agree to represent you on a contingency fee basis, meaning your attorney won’t get paid unless you receive a financial settlement or a court verdict.

Don’t let employment discrimination beat you down. Find out how a skilled attorney will help you win the compensation you deserve.

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Employment Discrimination Questions & Answers