Workplace discrimination can cause significant harm to employees. Laws prohibiting discrimination exist at the federal, state and local level and provide many avenues for employees to obtain redress. Where a federal violation has occurred, the first step is to file a charge of discrimination with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC).
What Is the EEOC?
The EEOC is a federal agency dedicated to enforcing federal laws relating to discrimination in the workplace. It is authorized to investigate charges of discrimination against an employer, assess the evidence and make a finding. Where discrimination is found, the agency will attempt to settle the charge with the employer or, if that is not successful, may file a lawsuit on the employee’s behalf. The EEOC also provides guidance and assistance to federal agencies and administrative judges with respect to EEO complaints and compliance. Finally, it works to prevent discrimination through educational and technical assistance programs.
Does the EEOC Handle All Discrimination Claims?
The EEOC does not enforce all claims of discrimination. Certain claims and parties fall outside its jurisdiction.
The EEOC handles complaints related to all aspects of employment, including hiring, firing, promotions, harassment, training, wages and benefits. Discrimination may be based on a person’s race, color, religion, sex (including harassment, pregnancy, gender identity, and sexual orientation), national origin, age (40 or older) or disability. Furthermore, the EEOC enforces laws prohibiting retaliation against a person who complained of discrimination, filed a charge of discrimination, or participated in an employment discrimination investigation or lawsuit.
Generally, federal discrimination laws only apply to employers with at least 15 employees (20 employees for age discrimination), labor unions and employment agencies.
Claims may be brought by current and former employees, job applicants and participants in training programs or apprenticeships. Independent contractors do not qualify. In addition, under age discrimination laws, claimants must be over the age of 40.
What Remedies Are Available for Successful Claimants?
Victims of discrimination may be entitled to several remedies with the goal of putting them in the same position as if they had not suffered discrimination. Remedies may include:
- Order to eliminate discriminatory practices. The employer may be ordered to stop any discriminatory practices and take steps to prevent discrimination in the future.
- Placement in the job. This may include ordering the employer to hire, promote or reinstate the employee, if appropriate.
- Wages. Prevailing parties may recover past and future lost wages, including wage adjustments.
- Emotional distress. These may be available to compensate the employee for mental anguish, inconvenience, or loss of enjoyment of life.
- Litigation expenses. Attorneys’ fees, expert witness fees and court costs may be recovered.
- Punitive damages. This is only available against employers that acted maliciously or recklessly.
- Liquidated damages. Where an employer has engaged in intentional age discrimination or intentional sex-based wage discrimination under the Equal Pay Act, victims may be entitled to “liquidated damages” equal to the amount of back pay awarded the victim.
Limits on Damages
There are limits on the amount of punitive and compensatory damages a prevailing party may recover from an employer. These limits differ based on the size of the 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.
How Does the EEOC Complaint Process Work?
Before suing an employer in court, victims of discrimination must first bring a claim to the EEOC (except in cases where the employer violated the Equal Pay Act). The complaint process works as follows:
Filing a Complaint
The first step is for the claimant to file a charge of discrimination with the EEOC. This is a signed statement asserting that an employer engaged in employment discrimination and requesting remedial action by the EEOC. There is a statute of limitations that applies to EEOC claims. The statute of limitations varies depending on the basis for the discrimination claim.
Claimants may use the EEOC Public Portal to submit an inquiry, make an appointment or file a charge. Where the discriminatory conduct violates state or local discrimination laws as well as federal law, claimants can file with the state or local agency and will automatically be “dual-filed” with the EEOC.
Next, an EEOC representative contacts the employee and the employer requesting the parties to submit to voluntary mediation. If they agree, the parties will work with a neutral third-party to settle the matter.
If one or both parties do not want to participate in mediation, or they cannot come to an agreement after mediation, the EEOC will proceed to investigate the discrimination claim. The investigation may include interviews, review of any documentation by the parties and other actions.
Following an investigation, the EEOC may find a violation, in which case it will attempt to settle the matter or sue the employer in federal court. If the EEOC concludes there was no violation, it will issue a Notice of the Right to Sue to the claimant, permitting the claimant to file a lawsuit in a court of law.
The EEOC has authority to enforce many discrimination laws. However, claimants should always consult an attorney because they may be able to bring a complaint under state and local law, too. Employers should make sure they understand employment laws that may pertain to their business so they can comply and avoid violations.
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