Every American citizen has certain rights that are protected by the US Constitution and acts of Congress. These rights ensure equality for all citizens, regardless of race, sex, age, disability, national origin, religion, etc. If a citizen believes that discrimination has occurred, that is, that he/she has been denied their civil rights, legal action can be taken.
Civil rights laws are implemented by federal legislation and/or federal court decisions. The thirteenth and fourteenth amendments are probably the most important of these, but there are countless laws on the books that protect the individual rights of American citizens. The judiciary branch of the government plays a major role in interpreting these laws. There are also laws on the state level that protect citizens’ fundamental freedoms. Often in civil rights cases, both state and federal agencies will work together to protect the rights of an individual.
Before taking any legal action, you must ask yourself whether a protected right has been violated. Sometimes what appears to be unlawful discrimination is actually perfectly legal. For example, though you may feel that you have been discriminated against in the workplace, an employer might claim that you did not meet a Bona Fide Occupational Qualification (BFOQ). This defense allows for a certain degree of discrimination where sex, national origin, age, or religions affect a worker’s ability to perform their duties. The FAA has a rule that states pilots must retire after age 65 (the age limit was previously 60 years old). A 65 year old pilot who is asked to retire cannot claim age discrimination, because although the rule is perfectly legal. It is important to know all the facts surrounding your circumstances before you file a claim or suit. It may be wise to consult a civil rights lawyer to determine whether what you have experienced was truly a civil rights violation before taking further action.
Civil rights violations can occur in a number of different arenas including housing, education, and employment. Different government agencies handle different types of cases, so it is important to know which agency you will need to work with. For example, a civil rights violation in education will be handled by the US Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights whereas a civil rights violation in housing will be handled by the Office of Fair Housing and Equal Opportunity in the Department of Housing and Urban Development.
In order for a civil rights case to be valid, you must be able to prove that damages have occurred and there was a discriminatory motive in a case. A civil rights lawyer can help you gather the information necessary to strengthen your claims. Consider that monetary damage can be proven more easily that emotional damage. Also consider that a judge will be more likely to believe your claim if you can gather others who have experienced similar treatment.
If you are certain that your civil rights have been violated, you should file claim or complaint with the government. Filing a claim will start an investigation into your case. The appropriate government agency will contact the person or group that has been accused of discrimination. That person/group, known as the Respondent, must create a written reply. An investigator will then contact you with more information.
For some civil rights cases, a claim is absolutely necessary before a suit can be drawn up. The importance of a claim depends on the state where the violation occurred as well as the nature of the violation. For example, a claim must be filed through the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission for most employment discrimination cases. Sometimes a government agency will pursue severance pay rather than taking a case to court. If the agency determines that a case should be taken to court, it is important to note that the agency will not cover legal fees or provide you with counsel.
Knowing where to file your claim is extremely important in civil rights cases. There are several government agencies that handle civil rights violations, both on the state and federal level. The nature of the violation determines where a civil rights claim should be filed. Sometimes state agencies can work alongside federal agencies and a dual claim can be filed. It would be best to consult a civil rights lawyer who can give you more information about how your case should be handled.
If your lawyer determines that you should file a lawsuit, there are certain steps that must be taken. You must first file a complaint with the court that details the facts and allegations in your case. The complaint must also show that the defendant is responsible for any damages. If the suit goes to trial, the plaintiff must prove their case by a preponderance of the evidence, that is, the plaintiff must present just enough evidence to make it more than likely than not that the defendant is responsible for the claims against him/her. In a civil rights case, a suit can be for monetary compensation or to stop the discriminatory behavior.
In cases that involve both discrimination and criminal charges, such as police brutality cases and hate crimes, the procedure is slightly different. These types of cases are handled like criminal cases. Stronger evidence is necessary and the charges are usually against an individual rather than an organization. In court the plaintiff must prove beyond reasonable doubt that the defendant is guilty.