Civil rights protections have come a long way since the nation's founding more than 200 years ago, when slavery thrived and women and people with disabilities were denied access to the most basic public amenities. But laws only matter when they're enforced; and with respect to civil rights violations, it is up to aggrieved parties to assert their civil rights. This section provides both basic and in-depth information about filing discrimination and other civil rights claims; the importance of filing your claim with the government before initiating a lawsuit; the government's role in enforcing civil rights laws; and related information.
How to Determine Whether Your Civil Rights Were Violated
Just because your rights have been violated doesn't necessarily mean your civil rights were. What matters for these types of claims is whether a "protected right" -- that is, a right conferred to protected classes of individuals -- was violated. If you are a prison inmate who was violently beaten by a guard, then you probably have a valid civil rights claim above and beyond assault and battery, since inmates are constitutionally protected from cruel and unusual punishment. If you are denied access to a public swimming pool because of your skin color, then your protected right to equal access -- a civil right -- has been violated.
But if you are denied access to the same public swimming pool because you refuse to shower before entering the water, regardless of your skin color, your civil rights have not been violated. Unbathed patrons of public swimming pools are not protected.
Filing a Civil Rights Claim with the Government
If you reasonable suspect that your civil rights have been violated, you may choose to file a formal claim with the state or federal government. Some states offer more protected rights than the federal government, so make sure you explore your options. Once you file your claim with the appropriate government agency, it will begin an investigation to determine whether your claim has merit. This is helpful, since the agency has multiple resources at its disposal, and also required for certain types of claims before a lawsuit may be filed. Some state agencies also file federal complaints on your behalf (known as "dual filing").
There are different agencies in charge of enforcing different types of civil rights violations. For example, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) is in charge of employment violations and the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) handles disability discrimination complaints. Each agency has its own process for taking complaints, but most offer standard forms that must be filled out and sent in. For example, someone who wants to file a complaint alleging housing discrimination in Florida would fill out a five-page questionnaire with the Florida Commission on Human Relations.
Filing a Private Lawsuit
You may also file a private lawsuit against the offending party with either the state or federal court, depending on jurisdiction and the specifics of your case. But remember that for certain civil rights violations, the claimant first must file a complaint with the corresponding state or federal agency before filing a civil complaint in court. If you have a civil rights claim and would like to file a private suit, it's often best to retain the services of a trained attorney.
Click on a link below to learn more about filing civil rights claims.