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Title VII of the Civil Rights Act

Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, 42 U.S.C. § 2000e, et seq., is the primary federal law that prohibits employment discrimination.

Protected Classes

Title VII protects applicants and employees against discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex or national origin.  It does not cover age discrimination or disabiliity discrimination, which are coverd by the Age Discrimination in Employment Act and the Americans With Disabilities Act.

In the simplest terms, Title VII prohibits employers from making employment related decisions where the decision is motivated by a person’s protected trait (those listed in the paragraph above).  Thus, for example, an employer may be sued for favoring a white employee over a black employee because of race or color.

Title VII is also the federal statute which makes sexual harassment unlawful.

Covered Employers

An employer (a person engaged in an industry affecting commerce) must have fifteen or more employees for each working day in each of twenty or more calendar weeks (in the current or preceding calandar year) to be covered by Title VII.

Proving A Claim Under Title VII

The courts recognize two types of claims under Title VII.  Disparate treatment and disparate impact claims.  These are just fancy ways to say very simple things.

Disparate Treatment

In order to prove a disparate treatment claim under Title VII, an employee must establish that he or she suffered some unfair treatment and that the reason for the unfair treatment was the employee’s protecte trait.

Obiously, to bring a lawsuit the person suing must be protected by Title VII and be comparing him or herself to someone outside of the protected class.  Thus, a white employee cannot sue for race discrimination where he claims that another employee, who is also white, was given preferential treatment.  Likewise, in order to maintain a claim, the employee must demonstrate that the person given preferential treatment was “similarly situated”.  That is, a low level clerk cannot complain that he was unfairly treated by not getting keys to the executive bathroom—even if he is the only minority employee at the company.

A Narrow Exception to the Rule - BFOQ

An employer is allowed to discriminate against an applicant or employee where the decision rests on a “bona fide occupational qualification” or BFOQ.  This means that an employer can favor one person over another where the person’s trait is of essence to the performance of the job duties in question.  The most notable example is hiring a femal for modeling women’s clothing.

Filing A Claim Under Title VII

To file a court claim you must first “exhaust your administrative remedies”.  Stated more simply, you are required to file a claim with the EEOC before you may sue your employer in court.  You should generally file your claim at the EEOC office that is closest to you.

In some states, you can file your claim with a state agency which will then cross file your complaint with the EEOC.  Generally speaking, your claim must be filed within 300 days of the unlawful treatment.  In some states, however, you may be required to file your claim within as little as 180 days.

Regardless of where you file your claim, the EEOC or state agency will undertake some form of investigation.  In many instances, however, the agency does little to determine whether or not your rights have been violated.  Many plaintiffs attorneys believe that the agency filing, while required, is entirely useless.

Whether or not the agency is able to assist you, you are not entitled to bring a claim in court until and unless the EEOC issues to you a notice of right to sue (called the “right to sue letter”).  Getting a right to sue letter does not mean that the EEOC has determined that you have a case against your employer.  Rather, it is simply a determination that you may pursue your claim in an appropriate court.

Damages under Title VII


  • Back pay is the most common form of relief. Back pay consists of wages , salary and fringe benefits the employee would have earned during the period of discrimination from the date of termination (or failure to promote), to the date of trial.

  • Compensatory Damages are allowed for future loss, emotional distress, pain & suffering, inconvenience, mental anguish & loss of enjoyment of life. Caps are placed on compensatory damages according to the size of the employer. The limits on damages are as follows:

    Up to 100 employees: $50,000
    101-200 employees: $100,000
    201-500 employees: $200,000
    500+ employees: $300,000

    These caps apply only to individuals. In a class action situation, each plaintiff can be awarded the maximum amount specified for the size of their company.

  • Attorney’s Fees may be awarded to the prevailing party.

  • Punitive Damages are limited to cases where the “employer has engaged in intentional discrimination and has done so with malice or reckless indifference to the federally protected rights of an aggrieved individual.” Kolstad v. American Dental Association, 119 S.Ct. 2118 (1999). These damages are capped according to the size of the employer and are the same as those listed above: Up to 100 employees: $50,000; 101-200 employees: $100,000; 201-500 employees: $200,000; 500+ employees: $300,000

  • Front pay is designed to restore victims to their “rightful place”. It compensates the victim for anticipated future losses due to discrimination.

  • Injunctive relief (see also equitable relief) is available when there is an intentional discriminatory employment practice. For instance, an employee can be reinstated and an employer can be ordered to prevent future discrimination.

    More Information

    Title VII Articles

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