Civil Rights

AuthorRichard Leiter

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Civil rights laws are among the most volatile and controversial in the American legal system. The force behind these laws is that certain groups of individuals in our society need protection from infringement on certain basic rights that are recognized under our legal system and are inherent in our form of government.

Civil rights are considered fundamental to all citizens under the Constitution of the United States. These rights include freedom of speech and association, freedom to seek employment, and freedom from discrimination on the basis of religious belief, race, or national origin. When certain groups have historically been denied any of these civil rights, the government has stepped in to make it illegal to interfere in that group’s exercise of their rights. For example, African Americans historically have been excluded from certain types of activities in pursuit of their livelihoods. Thus civil rights laws have been enacted at both the federal and state levels to both guarantee African Americans their rights to freely seek employment in the workplace and to obtain an education in the institution of their choice without fear of discrimination on the basis of race and to provide a legal remedy for individuals who are discriminated against. Under civil rights law, acts by certain classes of people that deny others their civil rights can be either criminal in nature or actionable in civil court.

Federal civil rights laws may be enforced by the Justice Department. Usually, violations of the laws are punished by fines and/or injunctions. They may also serve as the basis for private lawsuits by individuals. Civil rights laws usually specify limits to the amount of recovery available in lawsuits filed under them. Also, they often require that a civil rights suit be filed under the available statute, rather than under general common law. This is called the doctrine of preemption, where civil rights laws preempt ordinary tort actions. Preemption is important because it caps the amount of damages for which a defendant may be liable.

Many states have gone even further than the federal laws in protecting civil rights. In those states that have established their own civil rights laws, most have authorized either the creation of new state agencies or have authorized existing agencies to handle the enforcement, administration, and/or investigation of violations of the laws. In some cases, the jurisdiction of the agencies is preemptive. For example, if a worker is fired because of his or her age, the firing may violate civil rights laws against age discrimination. If the state laws preempt private actions, the employee may only bring the complaint against the employer through the state agency or under the state law. In this case, the employee is bound by any restrictions regarding the type or size of the remedy. If the state law is not preemptive, or if the state law permits separate rights of action by the employee, the employee will be free to pursue his or her own course of action against the employer in court. The potential recovery for individual acts of discrimination or other civil rights infringements can be virtually limitless.

In many states civil rights laws may be very specifically divided in coverage and in agencies within state government. Housing and employment are the most frequent specific types of discrimination covered by state laws.

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Table 34: Civil Rights
State Code Section Agency Administrative Preemption Private Action Permitted? Attorney Fees Statute of Limitation
ALABAMA 25-1-20, et seq. (Age); 24-8-1, et seq. (Housing) Age: Alabama Department of Economic and Community Affairs No Yes Age: Yes;Housing: Discretionary Age: 300 days;Housing: 180 days with agency; 1 yr. private actions
ALASKA 18.80.200, et seq. (Generally); 14.18.010 (Education) Commission for Human Rights; Board of Regents No Yes Discretionary Not specified
ARIZONA 41-1401, et seq. Civil Rights Advisory Board No §41-1492.08 (c): Yes §41-1481 (J): Yes 2 yrs.; 180 days through the Civil Rights Division §41-1492.09
ARKANSAS 21-3-201, et seq. (Public Employment); 4-87-101, et seq. (Credit); 11-4-601 (Employment); 16-123-107, et seq. (Generally) Employment: Department of Labor No Public Employment: No; Credit: Yes;Employment: Yes; Generally: Yes Credit: Yes; Employment: Yes;Generally: Discretionary Credit: 1 yr.; Employment: 2 yrs.;Generally: 1 yr.
CALIFORNIA Civ. §§51, et seq. (Public Accommodations) Gov. §12940 et seq. (Housing & employment Civ §§51: None; Gov. §12940: Dept. of Fair Employment and Housing No Yes Yes Civ. §51: 3 yrs.; Gov. §12940: 1 yr./agency
COLORADO 24-34-301,et seq. (Generally) Civil Rights Commission 24-34-305: Yes, with exception 24-34-306: Yes Yes 24-34-306: variable
CONNECTICUT 46a-51, et seq. (Generally) Commission on Human Rights and Opportunities 46a-52: Yes Yes Yes 180 days, except violation of §46a-80a: 30 days
DELAWARE Tit. 6 §4601, et seq. (Housing); Tit. 19 §710, et seq. (Employment); Tit. 6 §4500, et seq. (Public Accommodations) Housing & Public Accommodations: Human Relations Commission; Employment: Dept. of Labor Yes Housing: Yes; Employment: Yes; Public Accommodations: No Housing: Yes;Employment: Yes; Public Accomodations: No Employment: 90/120 days; Housing: 1 yr.;Public Accommodations: 90 days

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State Code Section Agency Administrative Preemption Private Action Permitted?

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