Discrimination in Employment

While the at-will employment doctrine generally says that an employer may terminate an employee for any reason, there are federal and state laws that protect against discrimination in employment based on a wide range of characteristics and circumstances. When an employer takes an adverse action against an employee based on the employee’s membership in a protected class, it has violated the law and the employee has remedies available to him or her under the law.

What classes of employees are protected under employment discrimination laws? Employers may not discriminate against employees based on age, disability, gender, genetic information, national origin, race, religion, sexual orientation, military/veteran status, union activity, or arrest/conviction record, among others.

In what ways can an employer discriminate against an employee? Anti-discrimination laws apply to all types of work situations and any conduct that adversely impacts terms and conditions of employment. Actionable discrimination occurs when the employer’s action impacts any aspect of employment. That includes hiring, firing, pay, job assignments, promotions, demotions, transfers, benefits, layoffs, and any other term or condition of employment. It is also unlawful to harass an employee based on their membership in a protected class even if they are not fired, demoted, etc. To be actionable, harassment must be so severe or pervasive that it creates a hostile work environment.

What are the laws that protect employees from workplace discrimination? Employment discrimination is prohibited in one form or another by the following statutes: Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964; the Age Discrimination in Employment Act (“ADEA”); the Americans with Disabilities Act (“ADA”); the Family and Medical Leave Act (“FMLA”); the Equal Pay Act; the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act; the Pregnancy Discrimination Act; the Uniformed Services Employment and Reemployment Rights Act (“USERRA”); the Genetic Information Nondiscrimination Act (“GINA”); the National Labor Relations Act (“NLRA”); and the New York Human Rights Law, among others.

What remedies are available to employees who are discriminated against? The purpose of anti-discrimination laws is to put the victim of discrimination in the same position that he or she would have been if the discrimination had never occurred. Employees who can prove that they were subjected to unlawful employment discrimination are usually entitled to one or more of the following remedies: reinstatement, backpay, front pay, compensatory damages, punitive damages, emotional damages, liquidated damages, injunctive relief, and attorney’s fees and costs of litigation.

Do employees have to pursue their claims through administrative agencies before filing in court? Typically yes, employees must file a charge of discrimination with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (“EEOC”) or the New York State Division of Human Rights (“NYSDHR”) before filing suit in court. When the EEOC or NYSDHR is finished investigating the charge, it will issue findings and either pursue the matter on the charging party’s behalf or issue a Notice of Right to Sue letter giving the charging party permission to file a lawsuit.

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