Title VII Protected Classes: Everything You Need to Know
The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that national origin refers to the country of birth, or of ancestry. 8 min read
Title VII Protected Classes
Under Title VII Protected Classes of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (Pub. L. 88-352) Vol 42(2000e) as amended in the U.S. code, employment discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex and national origin is prohibited. Race or color identification is understood to be any category circumscribed by law as persons of:
- African (i.e., black)
- Caucasian (i.e., white)
- Indian Americans (Eskimos, Native Hawaiians, Native Americans)
Prohibition of discrimination on basis of "color" is at times interpreted by some U.S. courts to infer a fair-skinned African American worker in cases where the plaintiff is pursuant of a discrimination charge on basis of the actions of a darker-skinned boss.
The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that national origin refers to the country of birth, or of ancestry. The term does not provide for discrimination allegations on basis of citizenship. The courts have generally upheld requirements that an employee communicate in English, where the requirement is job-related. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission's (EEOC) position is that a rule requiring bilingual employees to only speak English at work is discriminatory. Courts have typically upheld employer defense of U.S. English only rules to employment. Discrimination on basis of national origin is in violation of Title VII, unless stipulated as a criterion for the job role. Naturalization as a U.S. citizen requires proficiency in English.
Rules protecting persons of any sex, gender, or sexual orientation (i.e, gay, heterosexual, lesbian, transgender, transsexual, etc.) are part of Title VII provisions. Discrimination on basis of gender applies to women and men. Employers may not offer different benefits to men than women. Sexual harassment is prohibited by Title VII. In 1978, the U.S. Congress reformed Title VII laws to prohibit discrimination of pregnant workers. Pregnancy may not be considered in making employment decisions. Employers must treat pregnancy as other disabilities with accommodations.
EEOC guidelines to religious protections state that religious practices are those rules pertaining to "moral or ethical beliefs” and held with the strength of religious tradition. The rule imposes a duty to reasonable accommodation of a worker’s or prospective worker’s religious practice or observance. Exempt are practices that would cause “undue hardship” to an employer's business. Title VII makes exception to protections on agreements with religious corporations, associations, educational institutions, or societies.
Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964
Title VII prohibits workplace harassment and discrimination of employees. The legislation covers all private employers, state and local governments, and educational institutions with 15 employees or more.
The Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act of 2009, changes the Statute of Limitations for worker EEOC pay discrimination claims under Title VII and the Age Discrimination in Employment Act of 1967 (ADEA). The 2009 Act declares employment practice discriminatory when a discriminatory pay decision or practice is adopted that is differential for the same role and work obligations.
The Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act enacted in 2009, put into force legislative rules to equitable pay for women. Disproportionate earnings by men, and especially white males, historically is a political and legal issue not yet entirely met with satisfactory remedy.
- Women today are paid, on average, 77 cents per every dollar paid to men.
- For women of color, the gap is even wider, with African American women earning a ratio of 64 cents.
- Latina women earn a mere 55 cents, for each dollar earned by males.
Signed by President Obama, the Act restored protections from pay discrimination that had been eliminated by the U.S. Supreme Court decision to Ledbetter v. Goodyear Tire & Rubber Co. Under the Ledbetter Act, employees can sue at any time after alleged discrimination occurred and have been in receipt of payroll compensation in the preceding 180 days.
Public rhetoric surrounding the Supreme Court's 2007 Ledbetter decision, argued the ruling an end to sufficient employee protections from discrimination, as well as rights to procedural authority to pay during a discrimination claim. When the plaintiff filed a charge against Goodyear Tire & Rubber Co., alleging pay discrimination under the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), she was denied rights to equitable pay. Unequal pay, then, was not considered suffrage by a member of a protected class (women) in the case, but an arbitrary claim. According to the legislative overturning of the Ledbetter decision, the plaintiff was performing work equal to that of the dominant class (men), yet was compensated less for that work due to gender-based discrimination.
Dissenting opinion by Supreme Court Justice Ginsburg to judicial opinion in the Ledbetter case, identifies the issue of pay discrimination, as different than other forms of discrimination and is more akin to a "hostile work environment" claim, involving repeated, ongoing conduct. Congressional review of the case suggests that nowhere in it is there any room for the limitations period present in the statute or indeed any of the other requirements. The Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, introduced shortly after the Court decision, passed in the House, adopts Justice Ginsburg's view.
Amending anti-discrimination laws to the effect that each time a violation occurs, protections provide "each time wages, benefits, or other compensation [must be] paid" as remedy discriminatory practice. The new rule eliminates time constraints, insofar as even retirees could bring suits alleging pay-related discrimination occurring decades preceding a case if they are presently receiving benefits, such as pensions or health care. The rationale to the reform is that price of compensation (i.e., remedy) would be affected by discrimination, and that justice may only be served when the victim becomes aware of a credible legal claim.
The Ledbetter Act allowed employee plaintiffs allowed for differences in women’s pay to be defined as valid claim of discrimination. Opponents argue that Ledbetter does not account for any number of non-discriminatory factors, such as experience once minority complaint is at the gate. Under EEOC provisions, it is argued, employers are forced to defend cases where plaintiffs present evidence of a present wage gap, allegations of long-ago discrimination, and a story connecting the two. The flood of lawsuits is not limitless, however, because, employers change their hiring, firing, and wage practices to reduce the risk of lawsuits as result.
The reform of EEO Title VII legislation by Congress allows for punitive damages in addition to several years' worth of deficient pay. Opponents argue that the case opened the gate for class action lawsuits should similar reasoning be applied to a multitude of employment cases. The Ledbetter Act is among the top priorities of the American Association for Justice despite the existence of other, less attractive statutory remedies for those who are the victims of recent or continuing discrimination or unjustified pay disparities.
The federal enactment of ADEA in 1967 bars discrimination against employees or applicants who over the age of 40, by any employer with 20 or more employees.
Discrimination is strictly prohibited by Title VII. The U.S. Supreme Court ruling explicitly states that harassment is a hostile act. Hostile work environments violate the prohibitions of Title VII. When harassment is found to be not only pervasive but severe, altering an employee’s existence as well as the terms and conditions of employment contract, it is an abusive relationship. Hostile work environments are a violation of U.S. federal law. Harassment includes “bullying”, “hazing”, and lateral violence activities targeting individual employees. Violations also include harassment acts purportedly intended as a rite of passage for the victim to be wholly part of the organization or institution.
Title VII and Disparate Impact
According to EEOC laws under Title VII, employees who have been victimized do not have to “prove” that an employment practice “causes a disparate impact on basis of color, race, religion, sex, or national origin, but must file a claim. The EEOC investigates claims of discrimination and adverse or disparate impact. For an employer to adequately and substantially defend against a disparate impact claim under Title VII, they must demonstrate that the employment practice in question was consistent with necessary business protocol; and no other way existed to achieve its legitimate purpose without adverse impact.
On Jan. 26, 2009, the U.S. Supreme Court amended Title VII’s anti-retaliation rules to employee rights to protection. Reference to Crawford v. Metropolitan Government of Nashville and Davidson County, Tennessee, the Court held that federal rules protect not only employees who allege complaints of harassment and discrimination, but also employees who claim such disparate impact has affected another employee. Employee witnesses informing EEOC investigations of an employer’s violations of Title VII protected classes, stand as credible.
Title VII and the EEOC
Before a lawsuit can be filed against an employer, allegations must be filed with the EEOC in accordance with Title VII. If the EEOC finds an employee’s claim has merit:
- The Commission may sue on behalf of the claimant.
- The EEOC issues an employee’s “right-to-sue” letter.
In cases where a claim has no merit:
- An employee can still file a complaint of retaliation for filing a claim of harassment or discrimination and begin the litigation process in court.
Employees filing complaint with the EEOC can charge an employer with violations and compensation for lost wages, benefits, reinstatement, and attorneys’ fees. Compensatory damages may also involve allegations of intentional infliction of emotional distress (IIED), and are typically costly, yet are “capped” by Title VII allowance depending on the size of the employer.
New Title VII and EEOC Rulings Protect Transgender Employees
Few Americans, including the LGBT community, are aware that today a transgender employee is protected against being fired because of his or her status as a transgender person in all 50 states. Transgenders are now in protection based on recent rulings from federal courts and the EEOC under Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, making it illegal to discriminate “because of sex.” An employer who discriminates against a transgender employee can still challenge the EEOC’s ruling. If a case goes to federal court, an employer is unlikely to prevail against allegations of discrimination.
Transgender status may not be a protected class, but lawsuits involving transgender employees are permitted to proceed. In 2015, Michigan ruled on one of the first U.S. court cases focused on sex-discrimination over a transgender employee’s firing to proceed. The Michigan Court refused to dismiss the case despite the fact transgender persons are not considered a protected class under Title VII. The court found that transgender employees are as other employees and are permitted to file lawsuit complaints against their employers over stereotypes related to sex.
The U.S. Congress nor the Supreme Court has established transgender individuals as a protected class, yet at the district court level interpretation of EEOC includes this sexual identity as a having minority rights. Although transgender persons do not fall under a protected class, Title VII does provide general protections to transgender persons from discrimination by employers. The courts have concluded that transgender persons are the same as other persons, and this carries over to the workplace where they are to be protected from sex-stereotyping and gender-discrimination under Title VII. However, at present, transgender employees are not able to file a lawsuit under Title VII as a protected class.
In the future, it is likely that employers will increasingly find themselves confronted with allegations of sex discrimination in relation to transgender employees. Employers should consider EEOC education to prepare for forthcoming changes to policy, and to law if any. Best practices recommendations for employers are perhaps the most effective method of mitigating risk associated with liabilities in this area. It is also important for employers to address high risk business practices to establish updated anti-harassment training for existing and forthcoming employee hires.
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