Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (Title VII)

Title VII is a federal statute that prohibits employment discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex, or national origin.  The statute also bars retaliation against employees for asserting their rights under the statute.  

Title VII applies to employers throughout the country with at least 15 employees, including federal, state, and local governments.

Under Title VII, it is an “unlawful employment practice” for a covered employer “to fail or refuse to hire or to discharge any individual, or otherwise to discriminate against any individual with respect to his compensation, terms, conditions, or privileges of employment, because of such individual’s race, color, religion, sex, or national origin.”  42 U.S.C. § 2000e-2(a).  The law prohibits discrimination in any aspect of employment, including hiring, firing, pay, job assignments, promotions, layoffs, training, and benefits.  The statute also requires employers to reasonably accommodate employees’ sincerely held religious practices, unless doing so would impose an undue hardship on the operation of the employer’s business.

The Pregnancy Discrimination Act of 1978 amended Title VII to make it illegal to discriminate against a woman because of pregnancy, childbirth, or a medical condition related to pregnancy or childbirth.  The Act defined the terms “because of sex” or “on the basis of sex” to include “because of or on the basis of pregnancy, childbirth, or related medical conditions; and women affected by pregnancy, childbirth, or related medical conditions shall be treated the same for all employment-related purposes, including receipt of benefits under fringe benefit programs, as other persons not so affected but similar in their ability or inability to work.”  

If an employee proves discrimination in violation of Title VII, the remedies available under the statute include hiring, reinstatement, promotion, back pay, front pay, compensatory damages, punitive damages, attorney’s fees, and costs.  Compensatory damages and punitive damages are “capped” depending on the size of the employer.

To be protected by Title VII, an employee first must file a charge of discrimination with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) within 180 days of the alleged discrimination.  Under certain circumstances, this time limit may be extended to 300 days.  Note:  federal employees must file a charge of discrimination with their agency’s EEO office within 45 days of the alleged discrimination.

After an employee files a charge of discrimination, the EEOC will investigate the charge.  As part of the investigation, the employer will be notified of the charge and asked to submit a response to the employee’s allegations (often referred to as a “position statement”).  The EEOC may attempt to resolve the matter through mediation and settlement.

If the matter does not settle, at the end of the investigation, the EEOC may issue a finding of “probable cause” or “no probable cause” regarding the employee’s claims, although usually the EEOC does not take a position.  The EEOC process usually takes several months.  The EEOC then will issue the employee a “right to sue” letter that authorizes the employee to file a lawsuit in court, although it is possible to obtain the “right to sue” letter sooner.  The employee’s lawsuit must be filed within 90 days of receipt of the letter.

Because the rules and procedures under Title VII are complicated, an employee should discuss his or her complaints of discrimination promptly with a qualified employment lawyer

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