From race discrimination to sexual harassment and fair housing rights violations, if you believe you have been the victim of a civil rights violation, you most likely have questions about your situation and your options. Following is an overview of initial questions to ask and steps to take if you believe that your civil rights have been violated.
Was a "Protected Right" Violated?
The first question you should ask is whether a "protected right" has been violated. You may feel that your rights have been violated, but it doesn't necessarily follow that your civil rights were violated. Only certain rights are protected under civil rights and anti-discrimination laws. Some apparent "rights violations" are in fact perfectly legal, and cannot form the basis for a civil rights case. The examples below point out the difference between lawful discrimination and an unlawful civil rights violation, in the area of housing rights.
Example 1: Applicant 1, an owner of two dogs, fills out an application to lease an apartment from Landlord. Upon learning that Applicant 1 is a dog owner, Landlord refuses to lease the apartment to her, because he does not want dogs in his building. Here, Landlord has not committed a civil rights violation by discriminating against Applicant 1 based solely on her status as a pet owner. Landlord is free to reject apartment applicants who own pets.
Example 2: Applicant 2, an African American man, fills out an application to lease an apartment from Landlord. Upon learning that Applicant 2 is an African American, Landlord refuses to lease the apartment to him, because he prefers to have Caucasian tenants in his building. Here, Landlord has committed a civil rights violation by discriminating against Applicant 2 based solely on his race. Under federal and state fair housing and anti-discrimination laws, Landlord may not reject apartment applicants because of their race.
If a Protected Right Was Violated: Your Options
If you believe that a protected right was violated, you likely have a number of options available to you including: resolving the matter through informal negotiations, filing a claim with the government, and filing a private lawsuit in civil court.
As with most legal disputes, your civil rights matter often may be resolved without having to file papers in court or facing the prospect of a lengthy legal battle. For example, a potential employment discrimination matter can be resolved by both sides (typically through the employer and employee and their respective attorneys) sitting down and drafting an agreement in which the employer agrees to pay the employee a certain amount as severance, and the employee agrees to give up any right to sue over the matter.
Filing a Claim with the Government
For most cases involving civil rights violations, one of your options is to file a complaint with the government at the federal or state level, and allow a government agency to take steps to enforce your civil rights. Filing a complaint will usually trigger an investigation into your claims by the agency, and the government may take further action on your behalf. Whether your complaint is handled at the federal or state level will depend on the facts of your case and the claims involved (what laws were allegedly violated, etc.).
What matters most is that your complaint gets filed; after that, the agencies will decide where and how your case will be handled. In most cases, neither the offender nor the victim need be affiliated with the government. It is important to note that, for some types of civil rights cases, a claim must be filed with the government before any private lawsuit may be pursued.
Filing a Private Lawsuit for a Civil Rights Violation
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.
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 an applicable law. Regardless of where the case is handled (federal or state court), in order to begin the 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. Remember that, for some types of civil rights cases, you must file a claim with the appropriate government agency before pursuing any private lawsuit.
Hire an Attorney to Help with your Civil Rights Claim
Legal issues involving civil rights can be very complicated, and can be very difficult to resolve without proper expertise. 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 situation can be complicated -- including whether a "protected right" was violated, which laws apply to the situation, whether you must file a claim with the government, and where you might file a lawsuit. An 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.