What is a Civil Rights Lawsuit?
Civil rights are privileges and rights guaranteed and protected by the law. Several federal and state laws protect these rights, such as access to public spaces for people with disabilities or the ability to secure housing regardless of race or family status.
Federal law gives you the right to hold an individual or group liable for injuries caused by depriving you of the rights guaranteed by the constitution and U.S. laws. In other words, you have a right to sue for damages when someone violates your civil rights.
These examples of ongoing or lawsuits can give you an idea of what constitutes a valid civil rights claim:
- Black owners of McDonald’s franchises are suing the company for failing to provide them with the same opportunities as white owners.
- Minority residents in Georgia sued the city of LaGrange over limited access to utilities as compared to other residents.
- A Milwaukee Bucks player sued the Milwaukee police department for unlawfully arresting him based on his race.
- A Dubuque, Iowa firefighter filed a lawsuit against the city and the fire department chief for harassment and discrimination over her gender.
- A Starbucks employee in Georgia sued the company, claiming they fired her because of her religious beliefs.
When Should I File a Civil Rights Lawsuit?
Understanding when your civil rights have been violated can be confusing. Not every violation of rights constitutes a civil rights violation. For instance, an apartment complex can legally deny you housing because you have pets. They cannot deny you because you are of a particular race or religion.
The best way to know if you have a case for a civil rights claim or lawsuit is to talk to an experienced lawyer. Civil rights lawyers understand the complicated laws governing these cases. They can look at your situation and tell you if your civil rights were violated and if you have a case for a lawsuit.
Who is Liable and How Do I Prove it?
When taking legal action over a civil rights violation, you must be able to prove that the defendant is to blame and is liable for damages. You must be able to show:
- The defendant is responsible for violating your rights
- The violation of your rights resulted in harm
- The harm resulted in damages, such as actual monetary costs or emotional injuries
If your lawsuit goes to trial, your lawyer must show that the defendant is guilty by a preponderance of the evidence. This means the defendant most likely violated your rights and caused harm. This burden of proof is lower than in criminal lawsuits.
How Do I File a Civil Rights Lawsuit?
One of the most important reasons you need a civil rights lawyer to guide you through this process is that it isn’t always the same as other civil lawsuits. In certain discrimination or civil rights violations, you must file a claim with a government agency before you can file a private lawsuit.
For example, civil rights issues related to employment must first go through the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC). The EEOC will then decide if you can sue the defendants or not. Depending on your situation, you may need to file with a federal agency, a state agency, or both.
If you are able to proceed with a civil rights lawsuit against the defendants, the case follows similar steps to other civil cases:
- Your lawyer files a complaint that begins the lawsuit and notifies the defendants of the action taken against them.
- The defendants and your legal team investigate the incident and collect evidence to prove or disprove they violated your rights and caused harm.
- Both sides can then share information in a discovery period and hold depositions to build a case.
- The defendants may agree at this point to enter into negotiations for a monetary settlement.
- If your lawyer cannot get a sufficient settlement, you can take your case to court. In court, your lawyer presents evidence, argues your case, and provides witnesses and expert testimony.
- The jury decides if the defendants are liable for damages and what they owe you.
What Can I Recover in Damages?
The amount of money you recover in damages in a civil rights lawsuit depends on the situation and several factors:
- Medical expenses, if you suffered physical injuries
- Ongoing care or medical expenses for physical injuries or resulting disabilities
- Lost wages in employment cases
- Emotional pain and suffering
- Damage to reputation
If the harm caused by the violation of your rights is minimal, you may still be able to recover nominal damages. This is a small amount of compensation you may receive simply for proving the defendants violated your rights, regardless of injuries. For egregious violations, you may also be entitled to punitive damages intended to punish the defendants and deter similar violations by others.
Is There a Time Limit on Civil Rights Lawsuits?
The time limit, or statute of limitations, on filing a civil rights lawsuit varies depending on the situation and location. In cases where you must first file a claim with a government agency, the limit depends on that agency’s rules. For instance, the EEOC gives you 180 days to file a claim, although there are some exceptions.
In many situations, the statute of limitations depends on state laws, which may give you a year or a few years to file. Make sure you work with an experienced civil rights lawyer so that you do not miss the window of opportunity to file and recover damages.
Civil rights lawsuits are important, but they can also be complicated. Work with an experienced lawyer to ensure the best outcome. If your rights have been violated, you have a right to take action and seek damages.