What Is Discrimination Law?

Understanding common legal issues and questions

By Super Lawyers staff | Reviewed by Canaan Suitt, J.D. | Last updated on February 6, 2023

Federal and state laws seek to protect people from being treated differently based on certain protected characteristics or classes. If you believe you were discriminated against or denied an opportunity because of your race, age, disability, ethnicity, gender identity, sexual orientation, or religious beliefs, you might have a claim to a case of discrimination.

It can be tricky to determine whether you have a federal or state discrimination claim, and whether you are protected under one of the various anti-discrimination statutes. It can be very helpful to speak with an experienced attorney, but you might want to have a foundational understanding of your legal issue before you do. 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.

Overview

Discrimination occurs when someone treats similarly situated people differently based on certain characteristics, often referred to as protected classes. Discrimination law is made up of federal and state laws, as well as U.S. Supreme Court decisions. Discrimination laws aim to protect people from various forms of discrimination when engaging in several activities—including employment, housing, and voting.

Some key anti-discrimination laws include:

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 class, which include:

  • Race
  • Color
  • Ethnicity
  • National origin
  • Sex
  • Gender identity
  • Sexual orientation
  • Age
  • Disability
  • Religion
  • Veteran status
  • Genetic information
  • Citizenship
  • Marital Status

Employment

Employment discrimination is the different or unfair treatment of similarly qualified candidates based on membership in a protected class. Types of discrimination in employment practices can manifest in hiring, firing, job assignment, compensation, and retaliation. Sexual harassment, including hostile work environments, is also a form of workplace discrimination prohibited by state and federal law.

Employment discrimination complaints are usually handled by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), a federal 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. States also have agencies that handle these claims, and requirements can vary. It’s wise to speak with a lawyer about the steps of the process if you are considering legal action.

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.

Federal law also requires that states make 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.

Housing

Housing discrimination is prohibited by the federal Fair Housing Act. 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 protected category
  • False denials that units are available
  • Different terms for different residents, including larger security deposits or inconsistent handling of late payments
  • Refusal to provide reasonable accommodations to tenants with disabilities

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.

Credit

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 out warning signs of discrimination, including:

  • 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

Common Questions

Below are some common questions you might want to consider when meeting with an attorney for the first time.

  1. How do I know if I have faced discrimination?
  2. What is indirect discrimination?
  3. How do I file a discrimination lawsuit?
  4. Can I sue my employer for discrimination?
  5. Who is protected from discrimination in my state?

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.

To help you get started, you may want to consider looking for a lawyer who practices discrimination law.

Why Should I Talk to a Lawyer?

Discrimination law can be complex, because you often need to file your claim with a state agency and a federal agency. Additionally, some state laws protect classes of people that are not necessarily included in federal protections. Because of this, it will be helpful to have a lawyer who knows both federal and state law and how they work together. Your lawyer will also help you gather evidence and interview key players in your case.

A lawyer will further be able to anticipate potential problems with your case and offer legal advice on how to approach them and will keep track of deadlines and file all the paperwork with the necessary courts and agencies, giving you one less thing to worry about.

What do I do next?

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