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What Laws Protect Employees From Race Discrimination?

by | Jul 18, 2022 | Employment Discrimination, Employment Law, Federal Law Update, Race Discrimination |

If your employer discriminated against you or harassed you because of your race, there are a few different laws that it may be violating. When people think of race discrimination in employment, they most commonly think of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (“Title VII”). In addition to Title VII, there are other laws protecting you, including 42 U.S.C. § 1981 (commonly called “Section 1981” for short) and 42 U.S.C. § 1983 (“Section 1983”), which Congress passed in the aftermath of the Civil War. Section 1981 prohibits discrimination by private businesses and individuals, and Section 1983 prohibits people in the state and local government from violating people’s constitutional rights (including committing race discrimination). There are also state laws prohibiting race discrimination. In Ohio, for example, R.C. § 4112 bans employers from discriminating based on “race, color, religion, sex, military status, national origin, disability, age, or ancestry.”

How do race discrimination laws differ?

Best Race Discrimination Lawyer Answer: The main differences in these laws are the statutes of limitations (i.e., how long after the discrimination you are allowed to file), the remedies (i.e., what you can be awarded), and what you have to prove. I will explore these three aspects separately below.

The differences in these laws are demonstrated in the case of Lewis v. Indiana Wesleyan University, which the United States Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit decided on June 10, 2022. Dr. Emily Lewis was a Black woman who began working for Indiana Wesleyan University (“IWU”) as Director of Instructional Design in 2017. When Dr. Lewis began working for IWU, she noticed that her Caucasian subordinates were rude to her and did not take her directions. In July 2018, Dr. Lewis reported to her boss, Executive Director Lorne Oke, that she believed she was facing discrimination because of her race. Then the bigger problems started. Oke told Dr. Lewis that she should get “Black woman syndrome off of [her] shoulders” and called Dr. Lewis “too smart.” The following month, on August 6, 2018, Oke informed her that he was taking away her supervisory duties.

Then, in February 2019, IWU decided to eliminate Dr. Lewis’s position. On July 8, 2019, Dr. Lewis filed a charge of discrimination with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (“EEOC”), the federal agency that handles discrimination claims. Dr. Lewis received a Right-to-Sue letter from the EEOC and filed her case in federal court in Indiana on October 24, 2019, alleging race discrimination and retaliation under Title VII and Section 1981. (Best Law Read: It’s Bad To File With The EEOC Without A Lawyer; Read This Before Filing An EEOC Charge). Dr. Lewis also filed claims for age discrimination, which we will not address in this blog.

What are the statutes of limitations for different race discrimination laws?

Best Employment Discrimination Attorney Answer: The statute of limitations is the deadline given by a particular law to assert a claim under that statute. Failure to meet that deadline will result in you losing your claim under that statute. Title VII, Section 1981, Section 1983, and state laws have different statutes of limitations, so it is important to speak with a qualified employment lawyer as soon as possible to make sure that you do not miss any deadlines.

Title VII

Depending on what state you are in, Title VII requires you to file a charge in the EEOC either within 180 days or within 300 days. Talk to an employment discrimination attorney to find out which deadline will apply in your state and to your particular claims. In Indiana, where Dr. Lewis filed her case, the deadline for race discrimination cases is 300 days. This is where the dates I mentioned above become important. Dr. Lewis was demoted on August 6, 2018; then IWU decided to terminate her employment in February 2019; and then Dr. Lewis filed in the EEOC on July 8, 2019.

In her lawsuit, Dr. Lewis alleged two main adverse employment actions: her demotion and her termination. (Best Law Read: What Is An Adverse Employment Action?). The problem in Dr. Lewis’s case was that she filed her EEOC charge more than 300 days after her demotion. The Court dismissed her Title VII claim for the demotion because she filed it too late. However, she filed within 300 days of the termination decision, so the Court ruled that she can move forward on her claim for discriminatory termination.

Section 1981

Claims under Section 1981 do not need to be filed in the EEOC, and an employee can file them within four years of the discriminatory actions. Dr. Lewis filed in court on October 24, 2019, which was well within the statute of limitations for all of the alleged adverse employment actions. The Court ruled that Dr. Lewis can move forward on her race discrimination claims under Section 1981.

Section 1983

The statute of limitations under Section 1983 varies from state to state. For example, courts in Ohio have ruled that plaintiffs have to file Section 1983 claims within two years; courts in Michigan, on the other hand, have ruled that plaintiffs have three years to file Section 1983 claims in court. If you think you may have a case against a government official under Section 1983, you should contact a lawyer as soon as possible to make sure you are not missing a deadline.

State Law

Different states have different anti-discrimination laws. Some require you to file in a state agency, similar to the EEOC, before filing in court. Other states do not. The statute of limitations will vary based on where you live and where your employer is located. In Ohio, for example, you are required to file in the Ohio Civil Rights Commission (“OCRC”) within 2 years of the discrimination, before filing in court.

What remedies are available for race discrimination under different statutes?

Best Employment Lawyer Answer: Each statute or employment law provides for a specific type of remedy. While some of the laws provide overlapping remedies for race discrimination, some provide a remedy that other laws do not. (Best Law Read: What Kind Of Damages Can You Get For Wrongful Termination And Discrimination?; Can I Still Win If I Start My Own Business After Being Wrongfully Fired?; How Is Back Pay Calculated In Wrongful Termination Cases?; Can I Get Front Pay After Being Wrongfully Fired?).

Title VII

Under Title VII, a prevailing plaintiff can win an award for lost wages, emotional distress, punitive damages, attorneys’ fees, and costs.

Non-monetary damages are capped under the law, at $50,000 for employers with fewer than 101 employees; $100,000 for employers with 101 to 200 employees; $200,000 for employers with 201 to 500 employees; and $300,000 for employers with more than 500 employees.

Section 1981

Under Section 1981, prevailing plaintiff can win an award for lost wages, emotional distress, punitive damages, attorneys’ fees, and costs. Very importantly, unlike Title VII, Section 1981 does not have a cap on awards.

Section 1983

Under Section 1983, a prevailing plaintiff can win an award for lost wages, emotional distress, punitive damages, attorneys’ fees, and costs. Notably, most Section 1983 cases can only be brought against the individuals acting on behalf of the government, not the government itself. The exception to this is that Section 1983 cases can be brought against municipalities – but not against the state – if a plaintiff can show that the discrimination resulted from a municipal “policy or custom.” Individual defendants usually have less money than a company or a government entity, which may limit how much you are able to recover.

State Laws

Available damages under state discrimination laws vary from state to state.

What do you have to show to win a race discrimination case?

Best Racial Discrimination Lawyer Answer: Each race discrimination statute requires an employee to prove his, her or their case in a different manner, which lawyers call a prima facie case. (Best Law Read: What does prima facie mean?; How Do You Win A Discrimination At Work Lawsuit?).

Title VII

Under Title VII, there are two main types of race discrimination claims: “disparate treatment” and “disparate impact.” Disparate treatment is when an employer treats you differently from other employees because of your race. Disparate impact is when an employer adopts a policy that looks racially neutral on its face but has a bigger impact on one racial group than another. (Best Law Read: What is Disparate Impact Discrimination?). To win a disparate impact case, you have to show that there was a facially-neutral policy that had a bigger impact on one racial group, and you have to show that the policy was not related to a bona fide occupational qualification.

To win a disparate treatment case, you have to show that your race was a motivating factor in the adverse employment action. In the Lewis case, the Court noted: “To succeed on a Title VII discrimination claim, an employee must prove (1) that she is a member of a protected class, (2) that she suffered an adverse employment action, and (3) causation.” The Court went on to note, “Race discrimination claims under Title VII simply require that race be a ‘motivating factor in the defendant’s challenged employment decision.’” (Best Law Read: What Is Disparate Treatment?).

Section 1981

In contrast, Section 1981 does not include disparate impact claims. Additionally, as the Court in Lewis noted, “For a § 1981 claim, however, ‘a plaintiff bears the burden of showing that race was a but-for cause of [her] injury.’” This is a more difficult standard to meet than the “motivating factor” standard. Under this standard, a plaintiff has to show that the employer would not have taken the adverse employment action if she were a member of a different race.

Section 1983

Like Section 1981, cases under Section 1983 do not include disparate impact claims. In race discrimination cases under Section 1983, an employee has to show that she faced an adverse employment action because of her race, and that the individual defendant caused the discrimination. However, like Title VII, Section 1983 allows a plaintiff to prevail by showing that race was a “motivating factor” in the discriminatory treatment.

State Law

State laws vary on what an employee has to prove to win a race discrimination claim.

What was the result in the Lewis v. IWU case?

In the U.S. District Court, the judge ruled in favor of IWU on all claims.  The district court ruled that Dr. Lewis waived her age discrimination claim by failing to present any arguments on why the court should rule in IWU’s favor.  On the retaliation claims, the district court evaluated the claims and determined that the demotion was not retaliatory because Dr. Lewis did not complain about discrimination until after the demotion; and the termination was not retaliatory because the person who made the termination decision did not know about her discrimination complaint.  Oddly, on the race discrimination claims, the district court did not provide any explanation for ruling in the defendant’s favor.

Dr. Lewis appealed the case to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit, where the appeals court upheld the district court’s decision on age discrimination and retaliation but vacated the decision on race discrimination. The appeals court ordered the district court to reconsider the race discrimination claims in a manner consistent with the decision and provide a written explanation for any decision.