If you believe you have been the victim of a civil rights violation, you most likely have the option of filing a lawsuit against those responsible for any harm suffered as a result. Following are a few things to consider before filing a lawsuit for a civil rights violation -- including the requirement that you file a government claim before filing a lawsuit in some types of cases, the choice of where to file (federal or state court), and what to expect in a lawsuit.
Before Filing a Lawsuit: Do you Need to File a Government Claim?
For certain types of discrimination and civil rights violation allegations, you MUST file a claim or complaint with a federal or state agency BEFORE you file any private lawsuit in court, and these agencies typically set strict time limits for claim filing. For example, for allegations involving almost all types of employment discrimination, the charging party(i.e. an employee alleging discrimination) must file a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) before filing any private lawsuit, and must do so within 180 days of the alleged offense. Only after receiving permission from the EEOC may individuals file alawsuit. This permission typically comes in the form of a "right to sue" letter issued by the EEOC, usually only after the EEOC has found sufficient evidence that a civil rights violation has occurred.
State agencies may also investigate a complaint for civil rights violations or discrimination, and may work alongside (or in place of) a federal agency. For example, employees who allege job discrimination in California may file a complaint with the California Department of Fair Employment and Housing. As part of its standard procedure, that state agency will usually send the complaint to the EEOC at the federal level, so that it becomes a "dual filing."
An experienced civil rights attorney will be able to tell you whether filing a government claim will be necessary in your case.
Lawsuits in Federal and State Court
Once you decide to file a lawsuit for a civil rights violation, one of your first considerations will be where to file: in federal or state court. Depending on the specifics of your case, the choice may be yours, or your options may be dictated by a statute. For example, a federal statute (42U.S.C. section 1981a) specifically permits a private lawsuit for money damages for any employee who has been the victim of intentional discrimination in employment. So, if you believe you have a claim for intentional discrimination in employment, file a lawsuit in federal court. But, depending on where you live, your state may have a similar law, allowing you to choose where to file your lawsuit (in state or federal court).
What to Expect in a Lawsuit
A lawsuit for a civil rights violation will be filed and handled in civil court (federal or state civil court, as discussed above). In a civil case, the person claiming a civil rights violation (the "plaintiff") files a "complaint" with the court. The complaint sets out certain facts and allegations, in an attempt to show that the opposing party (the "defendant(s)") is/are responsible for the civil rights violations alleged in the complaint, and for any harm suffered by the plaintiff as a result. Ultimately, if the civil rights case goes to trial, the plaintiff must prove by a "preponderance of the evidence" (that it is more likely than not) that the defendant is legally responsible for the damages alleged by the plaintiff.
A complete civil case typically consists of the following main phases:
Get an Attorney's Help
If you believe you have suffered a civil rights violation,the best place to start is to speak with an experienced civil rights attorney. Important decisions related to your case can be complicated -- including which laws apply, whether you must file a claim with the government, and where you should file your lawsuit. A civil rights attorney will evaluate all aspects of your case and explain all options available to you, in order to ensure the best possible outcome for your case.
Contact a qualified civil rights attorney to help you protect your rights.