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What you need to know about Title VII of the Civil Rights Act

Whether you are an employer or employee, you've likely heard about Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. In fact, there are few employment laws out there as important as this one, particularly when it comes to allegations for workplace discrimination.

But if you don't know many of the specific details and nuances of the important legislation, don't worry, you're not alone. Fortunately, this article will cover some of fundamental concepts of Title VII, including who it protects, what it prohibits, and the possible claims employees may attempt to pursue under it. So, let's start with the basics.

What is Title VII of the Civil Rights Act — and what does it prohibit?

Many people are surprised to learn that most jobs in the U.S. are considered "at-will" employment. This means that an employer can typically fire an employee for any reason they want — except an illegal reason such as unlawful discrimination — and that's where Title VII of the Civil Rights Act comes in.

Specifically, Title VII is the main federal law that prohibits employment discrimination based on:

  • Race
  • Religion
  • National origin
  • Color
  • Sex, including gender, gender identity, pregnancy, and sexual orientation

This means that an employer cannot take an "adverse employment action" — such as firing, refusing to hire, demoting, refusing to promote, etc. — against an employee or potential employee based on any of these protected characteristics. If they do, the employee might have a discrimination claim.

You may notice that "age" or "disability" aren't one of the protected groups listed above and that is because older workers and disabled workers are actually protected under different federal laws — the Age Discrimination in Employment Act (ADEA) and Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), respectively.

It's also important to note that individual states may create they own discrimination laws that might protect a wider range of employees than any of these federal laws, so employers should be aware of these laws as well.

Possible employee claims under Title VII

If an employee believes their employer has engaged in discrimination and other unlawful acts in violation of Title VII, there are several potential legal claims they may pursue, including:

  • Disparate treatment: Disparate treatment is the most obvious form of employment discrimination and it occurs when an employer treats an employee or job applicant differently than other employees because of their race, color, religion, national origin, or sex.
  • Disparate impact: This is when a seemingly neutral practice unduly impacts employees in a protected class, often unintentionally. For example, if employees must pass physical strength tests or meet a minimum height — requirements that appear neutral at first glance — it may still have a disparate impact on women or other protected groups. Assuming an employee can prove a disparate impact, the employer would be given an opportunity to show that the policy is necessary for the position and that no alternative policy/requirement would work.
  • Harassment: Under Title VII, there are two main forms of harassment claims, which include quid pro quo harassment and hostile work environment.
  • Retaliation: Title VII prohibits an employer from retaliating against employees or applicants when they assert their rights under the law, including when an employee files a Title VII discrimination charge, opposes an employer practice that violates Title VII, or testifies or participates in a Title VII investigation or proceeding.
  • Negligence: A title VII negligence claim usually involves instances in which a co-worker gets an employee fired for discriminatory reasons by making negative or critical statements about the employee and the employer actually knows, or should have known, of the co-worker's discriminatory intentions.

Keep in mind, though, this is not an exclusive list of the potential claims an employer may face under Title VII, not to mention some employees may also attempt to bring additional claims under state law.

Does Title VII apply to all employers?

Simply put, Title VII does not apply to each and every employer. In fact, as a general rule, Title VII typically only covers private and public sector employers with 15 or more employees. These employees may include:

  • Part-time employees
  • Full-time employees
  • Suspended employees
  • Employees on leave or vacation

You should know that this 15-employee requirement doesn't apply if the employer is the federal government.

Also, even if an employer doesn't reach this 15-employee threshold doesn't guarantee they can't face employee discrimination claims since state and local laws may give employees other options.

Are all employee protected under Title VII?

When it comes to who is and who is not a protected employee under Title VII, the determination is usually pretty straightforward. In fact, Title VII defines an employee as simply "an individual employed by an employer."

Therefore, assuming they work — or are applying to work — for a covered employer as outlined above, Title VII provides discrimination protection for all employees, former employees, and those applying to be employees. However, there are some very important exceptions to this rule. For example, Title VII typically does not cover:

  • Independent contractors
  • U.S. citizens who are working abroad for non-U.S.-controlled businesses
  • Foreign nationals who are working abroad for U.S.-controlled businesses

And, not to sound like a broken record, but it's always important to remember to check state and local laws since they may have additional discrimination protections beyond what Title VII provides.

Staying compliant with Title VII of the Civil Rights Act

Compliance and understanding starts with an in-depth analysis of the law and what it means to both employers and employees. If you want more information about Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, try the resources available in Practical Law today.

The content appearing on this website is not intended as, and shall not be relied upon as, legal advice. It is general in nature and may not reflect all recent legal developments. Thomson Reuters is not a law firm and an attorney-client relationship is not formed through your use of this website. You should consult with qualified legal counsel before acting on any content found on this website

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