Discrimination Law & Legal Definition


Discrimination refers to the treatment or consideration of, or making a distinction in favor of or against, a person or thing based on the group, class, or category to which that person or thing belongs rather than on individual merit. Discrimination can be the effect of some law or established practice that confers privileges on a certain class or denies privileges to a certain class because of race, age, sex, nationality, religion, or handicap. Federal law, including Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, prohibits employment discrimination based on any one of those characteristics. Other federal statutes, supplemented by court decisions, prohibit discrimination in voting rights, housing, credit extension, public education, and access to public facilities. State laws also provide further protection against discrimination.

The term discrimination is also used to refer to the effect of state laws that favor local interests over out-of-state interests. However such a discriminatory state law may still be upheld if it is narrowly tailored to achieve an important state interest.

Employment Discrimination laws seek to prevent discrimination based on race, sex, religion, national origin, physical disability, and age by employers. There is also a growing body of law preventing or occasionally justifying employment discrimination based on sexual orientation. Discriminatory practices include bias in hiring, promotion, job assignment, termination, compensation, and various types of harassment. The main body of employment discrimination laws is composed of federal and state statutes. The United States Constitution and some state constitutions provide additional protection where the employer is a governmental body or the government has taken significant steps to foster the discriminatory practice of the employer.

The Fifth and Fourteenth Amendments of the United States Constitution provide protection against discrimination by federal and state governments. The Fifth amendment prohibits the federal government from depriving individuals of "life, liberty, or property," without due process of the law. It also guarantees that each person receive equal protection of the laws. The Fourteenth Amendment prohibits states from violating an individual's rights of due process and equal protection. In the employment context, the right of equal protection limits the power of the state and federal governments to discriminate in their employment practices by treating employees, former employees, or job applicants unequally because of membership in a protected group, such as a race or sex. Due process protection requires that employees have a fair procedural process before they are terminated if the termination is related to a "liberty" (such as the right to free speech) or property interest. State constitutions may also afford protection from employment discrimination. Discrimination in the private sector is mainly governed by federal and state statutes.

The Equal Pay Act amended the Fair Labor Standards Act in 1963. The Equal Pay Act prohibits paying wages based on sex by employers and unions. It does not prohibit other discriminatory practices bias in hiring. It provides that where workers perform equal work in jobs requiring "equal skill, effort, and responsibility and performed under similar working conditions," they should be provided equal pay. The Fair Labor Standards Act applies to employees engaged in some aspect of interstate commerce or all of an employer's workers if the enterprise is engaged as a whole in a significant amount of interstate commerce.

Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibits discrimination in broad areas of the employment relationship. It applies to most employers engaged in interstate commerce with more than 15 employees, labor organizations, and employment agencies. Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, as amended, 42 U.S.C. §2000e, et seq., prohibits discrimination in employment on the basis of race, sex, national origin and religion. It also is unlawful under the Act for an employer to take retaliatory action against any individual for opposing employment practices made unlawful by Title VII or for filing a discrimination charge or for testifying or assisting or participating in an investigation, proceeding, or hearing under Title VII. Sex includes pregnancy, childbirth or related medical conditions. It makes it illegal for employers to discriminate in hiring, discharging, compensation, or terms, conditions, and privileges of employment. Employment agencies may not discriminate when hiring or referring applicants. Labor organizations are also prohibited from basing membership or union classifications on race, color, religion, sex, or national origin.

The Age Discrimination in Employment Act (ADEA) prohibits employers from discriminating on the basis of age. The prohibited practices are nearly identical to those outlined in Title 7. An employee is protected from discrimination based on age if he or she is over 40. The ADEA contains explicit guidelines for benefit, pension and retirement plans.

The American with Disabilities Act (ADA) was enacted to eliminate discrimination against those with handicaps. It prohibits discrimination based on a physical or mental handicap by employers engaged in interstate commerce and state governments. The type of discrimination prohibited is broader than that explicitly outlined by Title VII. The ADA prohibits discrimination in all employment practices, including job application procedures, hiring, firing, advancement, compensation, training, and other terms, conditions, and privileges of employment. It applies to recruitment, advertising, tenure, layoff, leave, fringe benefits, and all other employment-related activities.

The Equal Opportunity Employment Commission (EEOC) interprets and enforces the Equal Payment Act, Age Discrimination in Employment Act, Title VII, Americans With Disabilities Act, and sections of the Rehabilitation Act. The Commission was established by Title VII. Its enforcement provisions are contained in section 2000e-5 of Title 42, and its regulations and guidelines are contained in Title 29 of the Code of Federal Regulations, part 1614.

State statutes also provide extensive protection from employment discrimination. Some laws extend similar protection as provided by the federal acts to employers who are not covered by those statutes. Other statutes provide protection to groups not covered by the federal acts.