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Enforcing Your Civil Rights

It is important to understand your civil rights as they pertain to employment, education, access to credit, police custody and other situations. But knowing how to enforce these rights and file claims with the appropriate government agency may be just as important. FindLaw's Enforcing Your Civil Rights section contains a wide variety of articles and resources to help you assert your most fundamental rights. This section includes directories of federal and state civil rights offices; the full text of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, a directory of non-governmental civil rights organizations, step-by-step guides on how to file claims for various types of civil rights violations, and more.

Before Filing a Lawsuit

For certain kinds of discrimination and civil rights violations allegations a complaint MUST be filed with a federal or state agency BEFORE filing a private lawsuit. There are often strict time limits restricting when a claim may be filed. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), for example, requires the filing of a complaint relating to employment discrimination within 180 days of the incident. The EEOC must then give permission to sue, generally in the form of a "right to sue" letter if their investigation finds sufficient evidence that a civil rights violation occurred.

State agency requirements may contain similar requirements. In California employment discrimination is reported in a complaint to the California Department of Fair Employment and Housing, which sends the complaint to the EEOC as part of their standard procedure. An attorney may be helpful in determining whether it is possible to file a lawsuit directly or if there is a requirement to file a complaint with a state or federal agency in advance.

As part of the complaint process the federal or state agency may conduct an investigation into the merit of your claims and the government may take further action on your behalf. They may order mandatory mediation of the dispute or charge the offending party in court.

Civil Rights Lawsuits

Those complaining of civil rights violations may have a choice between taking their lawsuit to state or federal courts, though for some kinds of lawsuits a statute may determine the appropriate venue. An attorney can help determine whether you have a choice of venues or must bring your case to a particular court.

Regardless of whether your lawsuit takes place in federal or state courts it will be handled by the civil court rather than the criminal courts. Civil court cases begin when the person complaining of a violation (the plaintiff) files a "complaint" with the court. The complaint set out the facts and allegations that attempt to show how the opposing party (the defendant) was responsible for civil rights violations and the resulting harm to the plaintiff. If the case goes to trial the plaintiff must prove their case by a "preponderance of the evidence," a lower standard than the criminal court's "beyond a reasonable doubt" standard.

Because of the procedural complexity of these cases, which often involve multiple state and government agencies, a great deal of research or the assistance of an experienced professional Civil Rights Attorney is highly recommended.