What Is Discrimination Law?

Understanding common legal issues and questions

By Super Lawyers staff | Reviewed by Canaan Suitt, J.D. | Last updated on September 20, 2023 Featuring practical insights from contributing attorney Nina T. Pirrotti

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Federal and state laws seek to protect people from being treated differently based on certain protected characteristics or classes.

It can be difficult to determine whether you are protected under one of the various anti-discrimination statutes or whether you have a federal or state discrimination claim. It can very helpful to speak with an experienced attorney to get clarity on your situation.

The following is designed to give you an overview of common discriminatory practices and the laws that prohibit them so you feel confident speaking with a lawyer and taking next steps to enforce your legal rights.

What Is Discrimination?

“So many people, even lawyers who don’t focus on discrimination law, are confused by what discrimination is,” says Nina T. Pirrotti, an employment law attorney at Garrison, Levin-Epstein, Fitzgerald & Pirrotti in New Haven, Connecticut, who represents employees in a wide range of actions.

There are two misconceptions that need to be cleared up, Pirrotti says:

  • “First of all, there are many people who hear the phrase, ‘we’re an at-will employment state,’ and since ‘at-will employment’ means the employer can terminate an employee for any reason, they assume they have no legal recourse.” 
  • “On the other side, there are people who assume that every mention of a ‘hostile work environment’ or ‘discrimination’ is necessarily protected.”

Neither extreme is true.

One of the reasons we ask prospective clients to fill out a questionnaire about their workplace experience is that… [they’re often] putting up with a hostile environment when they don’t need to, and it isn’t even on their radar that the discrimination is happening… The problematic behavior may become so chronic or accepted that it fails to be recognized for what it is, which is unlawful conduct that should not happen.

Nina T. Pirrotti

Misconception 1: “At-Will Employment” Means I Can Be Fired For Illegal Reasons

“First of all, yes, most states have at-will employment. This means that employers can terminate someone for any reason at all—except an unlawful one. So, you could terminate someone because they like to wear stripes, and you have a bad feeling about stripes. That is completely irrational and makes no business sense, but it’s not an unlawful reason to terminate someone,” she says.

“On the other hand, if you’re terminating someone and you’re motivated by their membership in a protected class—race, gender, pregnancy, disability, religion, sexual orientation, etc.—those are unlawful, discriminatory reasons. Then you can be held accountable.”

Misconception 2: Discrimination Simply Means an Unpleasant Work Environment

“But there’s also a misconception about words that we use in common, everyday language, such as ‘hostile work environment’ or ‘discrimination.’ For example, someone casually says, ‘Oh my god, I work in a hostile work environment.’ And the truth is that too many of us do work in a hostile work environment in the colloquial sense—for example, we have an abusive boss, coworkers who are unkind, or an atmosphere that is fraught with stress and tension. All of that makes up a hostile work environment in the everyday sense.”

But when it comes to employment law and having a valid legal claim, “hostile work environment” is a term of art, says Pirrotti. “It doesn’t apply just to an unpleasant atmosphere. It only applies to those situations where somebody is being targeted for hostile treatment or potentially adverse employment actions because they are a member of a protected class.”

What Is a Protected Class?

Discrimination occurs when someone treats similarly situated people differently based on certain characteristics, often referred to as protected classes. A protected class is a group of people who share a common characteristic and are protected from discrimination based on that characteristic.

Federal law creates a baseline of protected classes on which state laws may build additional protections. Some key anti-discrimination laws include:

Protected classes under these statutes include:

  • Race
  • Color
  • Ethnicity
  • National origin
  • Sex (including gender identity, sexual orientation, and pregnancy status)
  • Marital Status
  • Age
  • Disability
  • Religion
  • Veteran status
  • Genetic information
  • Citizenship

Discrimination laws aim to protect people from various forms of discrimination when engaging in several activities—including employment, housing, and voting.

Discrimination in Employment

As noted, employment discrimination is the unfair treatment of similarly qualified candidates based on their membership in a protected class.

Discriminatory employment practices can manifest in hiring, firing, job assignment, compensation, or retaliation. Sexual harassment, including hostile work environments, is also a form of workplace discrimination prohibited by state and federal law.

Employment discrimination complaints under federal law are usually handled by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), an agency that enforces Title VII of the Civil Rights Act to prevent discrimination in employment. Before you are able to file a private lawsuit for discrimination, you must file a complaint with the EEOC and obtain a Notice of Right to Sue. This process is known as exhausting your administrative remedies—in other words, do what you can through the government agency before suing.

States also have employment agencies that handle state discrimination claims, and requirements for filing a complaint can vary. It’s wise to speak with a lawyer about the steps of the process if you are considering legal action.

Discrimination in Contexts Outside Employment

Though discrimination claims most often arise in the employment context, federal and state laws also prohibit other types of discrimination, including voting, housing, and credit discrimination.

Discrimination in Voting

Constitutional amendments prevent discrimination in voting based on race, age, and sex. Additionally, the federal Voting Rights Act (VRA) further protects against racial discrimination in voting, though the interpretation of the VRA’s provisions is constantly evolving through Supreme Court and lower federal court case law.

Federal law also requires that states make voter registration available when people apply for or receive government services like driver’s licenses. States must also make absentee voting available to armed forces stationed away from home, as well as citizens living abroad, and they must make polling places accessible to those with disabilities.

Discrimination in Housing

Housing discrimination is prohibited by the federal Fair Housing Act and comparable state laws. The Act prohibits discrimination based on race or color, religion, national origin, familial status, age, disability, or sex.

Overt housing discrimination happens when a landlord refuses to rent or sell to people based on their membership in a protected class. Discrimination can take more subtle forms, including:

  • Advertisements that express a limitation or preference based on a protected category
  • Different terms for different residents, including larger security deposits or inconsistent handling of late payments
  • Refusal to provide reasonable accommodations to tenants with disabilities
  • False denials that units are available

The federal Department of Housing and Urban Development administers and enforces the Fair Housing Act, so complaints of discrimination should be filed with them. Your state may also have an agency that enforces your state’s housing laws.

Discrimination in Credit Transactions

The federal Equal Credit Opportunity Act exists to protect consumers against discrimination in credit transactions based on membership in a protected class. In addition to the federally protected classes, the act includes protections for people who receive income from any public assistance program.

Creditors cannot, based on your membership in a protected class, refuse to extend credit if you qualify. They also cannot discourage you from applying for credit or offer you less favorable terms than they offer to others with similar qualifications.

The Act is enforced by the Consumer Finance Protection Bureau, which recommends looking for the following warning signs of discrimination:

  • You are treated differently in person than you were on the phone
  • You are discouraged from applying for credit
  • You are refused credit for which you qualify
  • You are denied credit with no explanation
  • You feel pressured to sign

Why Should I Talk to a Lawyer?

You do not have to put up with discrimination in the workplace or other areas of your personal and civic life. It is illegal, and there are legal options to address it.

Nevertheless, Pirrotti says that many employees endure discrimination or a hostile work environment when they don’t have to. In part, this is because they don’t know what’s expected or legitimate.

“One of the reasons we ask prospective clients to fill out a questionnaire about their workplace experience is that they often think violations have to be something really explicit, like not getting compensated properly. But many times, we learn that they’re putting up with a hostile environment when they don’t need to, and it isn’t even on their radar that the discrimination is happening,” she says.

“This is more common among young professionals who are starting their careers and are really just trying to figure out: What am I entitled to expect? What am I not? What’s a legitimate concern? What isn’t?”

But it’s not just young professionals.

“You’d be surprised that it also happens among more seasoned employees. For example, I had someone come to me and explain a situation where during a meeting with her boss, the boss was putting his hand on her knee under the table. When I tried to probe that, she said, ‘Oh, that’s just the way he is.’ The problematic behavior may become so chronic or accepted that it fails to be recognized for what it is, which is unlawful conduct that should not happen.”

The upshot is that if you are uncomfortable in your work environment or there are adverse employment actions you suspect are discriminatory, feel free to seek out and consult an attorney about what you are experiencing.

An attorney with experience in discrimination cases will be able to advise you on navigating the early process of reporting discrimination or harassment and how to document and gather evidence. They will also be equipped to give legal advice about your specific case, anticipating potential problems, deadlines, and legal procedures.

Finding the Right Attorney for Your Needs

It is important to approach the right type of attorney—someone who can help you through your entire case. To do so, you can visit the Super Lawyers directory, and use the search box to find a lawyer based on your legal issue or location. Look for a lawyer who practices discrimination law.

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