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Equal Employment Opportunity: How Lawyers Navigate Through Claims of Discrimination

In the United States, equal rights at work are enforced in many different ways. The federal system of the U.S. Constitution envisions both states and a federal government. According to our employment discrimination attorney, the equal opportunity mechanisms of the federal government are split into at least four institutions.

First, the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission is an independent commission that deals with discrimination in the workplace, among other things. Workplace discrimination can include treating workers differently and worse based on their sex, gender identity, sexual orientation, race, color, national origin, or other protected characteristics. It may also involve workplace harassment or disparate impacts, the latter being seemingly neutral policies that have a harsher impact related to such groups united by identity characteristics. Retaliation for opposing discrimination or disparate impact policies is also part of this commission’s work. An attorney can help prepare a filing with the EEOC, which may decide to pursue a worker’s case on their behalf and try to settle a harassment or discrimination case. The EEOC’s mission is to enforce federal civil rights, reduce or eliminate race and color discrimination from the workplace, promote equal opportunity, and fight subtle forms of bias.

Second, two other parts of the executive branch deal with equal opportunity. The Civil Rights Center of the Department of Labor oversees equal opportunity in activities receiving funding from the federal government. The Office of Federal Contract Compliance Program looks into compliance with equal opportunity rules on the part of federal contractors and subcontractors.

The fourth aspect of federal enforcement is the federal court system. The U.S. district courts have original jurisdiction over discrimination, retaliation, and disparate impact of various kinds.  They may award back pay, front pay, lost benefits, reinstatement, promotions, and transfers when appropriate. They can even address emotional distress damages and certain punitive awards.  The U.S. courts of appeal hear appeals from district court orders and judgments. The U.S. Supreme Court may take petitions to review courts of appeal decisions. It seeks to make employment law coherent across parts of the country, which have judicial circuits or regions.

States, counties, and cities have other systems for ensuring equal employment opportunity.  States and cities have human rights divisions, equal opportunity commissions, employment commissions, and so on. They act like more local versions of the EEOC, in appropriate cases.  For example, the New York Division of Human Rights oversees the state human rights law, and the NYC Commission on Human Rights the city laws. To take one of many examples, it is illegal under NYC law for an employer to, because of the actual or perceived characteristic of a person that is protected under city law, to decline to employ him or her or to fire him or her from employment, or to discriminate against him or her in compensation or in terms, conditions or privileges of employment.

According to our employment lawyers NYC, the characteristics protected in NYC include “age, race, creed, color, national origin, gender, disability, marital status, partnership status, caregiver status, sexual and reproductive health decisions, sexual orientation, uniformed service, height, weight,” and “immigration or citizenship status.” As of November 2023, the NYC commission announced that: “The Human Rights Law prohibits unlawful discrimination based on height or weight in employment, housing, and public accommodations….” Based on a law signed in May 2023 by Mayor Eric Adams, this prohibition follows others relating to marital status, partnership status, caregiver status, and sexual orientation.

States, counties, and cities also have court systems. In New York, the state court system is organized in Appellate Divisions, with a Court of Appeals above them to hear appeals. Certain decisions of the New York Court of Appeals are subject to review by the U.S. Supreme Court.

In either state or federal court, a lawyer may explore filing an employee’s claim as part of a class action or collective action. Class actions allow employees or other groups to band together to obtain more efficient rulings, based on more evidence and witnesses, of one or more common issues of fact or law, like whether disparate treatment or a disparate impact or sexual harassment occurred or whether supervisors retaliated against those who complaint about or opposed unlawful practices. A large class action in the workplace discrimination field may settle for $100 million or more. Changes to workplace conditions and policies may be worth even more than that.

In New York City, the law is even stronger than some of its federal or state counterparts. For example, in some instances in which workplace manuals or policies declare that discrimination or harassment in the workplace is banned, an NYC employer may still be liable in more instances in which it “should have known of the employee’s or agent’s discriminatory conduct and failed to exercise reasonable diligence to prevent” it.   

Next Steps

A qualified employment discrimination attorney may be able to help remedy workplace discrimination. Depending on the circumstances, federal or state statutes, or common-law claims may be available to an employee who suffers discrimination, harassment, retaliation, or a disparate impact. A free consultation can help you understand your rights and take action to protect them, including by contacting human resources or the government.