What Actually Is A Civil Rights Violation?

As an American citizen, it’s essential to know that our country grants us specific rights and freedoms. These protections come from the U.S. Constitution and federal laws. They safeguard us from unfair treatment based on traits like race, religion, gender, age, disability, and where we come from.

Understanding what counts as a violation of our civil rights is crucial. It means knowing when these fundamental protections have been disregarded or denied. For instance, if you’re mistreated or disadvantaged because of your race or religion, that could be a violation of your civil rights.

Sometimes, it isn’t easy to recognize when our civil rights have been infringed upon. That’s why it’s essential to be informed about what actions or behaviors can constitute a violation. This knowledge empowers us to defend our rights and seek justice when necessary.

Understanding Civil Rights

Civil rights encompass fundamental freedoms and protections guaranteed to every individual in the United States, regardless of their background. These rights are legally enforceable, allowing individuals to take action if their civil rights are violated.

Definition of Civil Rights

Civil rights are the basic rights and freedoms that belong to every person in the United States, regardless of their background. These rights are legally enforceable, meaning that if someone violates your civil rights, you can take action to protect yourself. The primary source of civil rights law is the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which prohibits discrimination in various settings like employment, education, and public accommodations. Other important laws include the Americans with Disabilities Act, the Age Discrimination in Employment Act, and the Fair Housing Act.

Protected Characteristics

Civil rights laws prohibit discrimination based on certain personal characteristics, often called protected classes. The main protected characteristics are:

  • Race and color
  • National origin
  • Religion
  • Sex (including pregnancy, sexual orientation, and gender identity)
  • Age
  • Disability

If you face adverse treatment or harassment because of any of these characteristics, it may be a civil rights violation. For example, if a landlord refuses to rent to you because of your race or if an employer fires you because of your sexual orientation, those would likely be civil rights violations.

Types of Civil Rights Violations

Civil rights violations can occur in many different contexts. Here are some of the most common types:

Discrimination in Public Accommodations

Public accommodations are businesses and facilities that are open to the general public, like restaurants, stores, hotels, and movie theaters. These establishments cannot discriminate against customers based on protected characteristics. For instance, imagine that you go to a restaurant with your same-sex partner. If the host refuses to seat you because they disapprove of your relationship, that would be a clear violation of your civil rights!

Employment Discrimination

Employers cannot make job decisions based on an applicant’s or employee’s protected characteristics. This includes decisions about hiring, firing, promotions, pay, benefits, and other terms and conditions of employment.

Some examples of employment discrimination include:

  • Refusing to hire someone because of their national origin
  • Paying women less than men for the same work
  • Denying a promotion to an older worker because of their age
  • Firing someone after finding out they have a disability

Civil rights violations encompass a broad range of actions including workplace discrimination, housing discrimination, and mistreatment by law enforcement. For instance, workplace discrimination might involve being fired, not hired, or demoted for reasons unrelated to job performance, or being retaliated against for reporting discrimination.

Housing discrimination could include being denied housing or a loan based on race, sex, or familial status or facing harassment from landlords. Law enforcement misconduct might involve excessive use of force, false arrests, or racial profiling.

Federal laws such as Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, the Fair Housing Act, and various sections of the U.S. Code outline these violations and the corresponding penalties, which can range from fines to life imprisonment depending on the severity and circumstances of the offense.

Employment discrimination also includes harassment based on protected characteristics. This could involve offensive jokes, slurs, intimidation, or even physical threats that create a hostile work environment.

Housing Discrimination

The Fair Housing Act prohibits discrimination in housing based on race, color, national origin, religion, sex, familial status, or disability. This applies to renting, buying, lending, and other housing-related transactions.

Some signs of housing discrimination include:

  • A landlord telling you an apartment isn’t available because of your race, even though it actually is available
  • A real estate agent steering you away from certain neighborhoods because of your religion
  • A lender offering less favorable mortgage terms to someone because they have children
  • A homeowners’ association refusing to make reasonable accommodations for a resident with a disability

In our experience, housing discrimination can be very subtle, so it’s important to know your rights and be on the lookout for red flags.

Educational Discrimination

Students have the right to an education free from discrimination. This means that schools cannot treat students differently based on their protected characteristics.

Some examples of educational discrimination might be:

  • A school refusing to admit a student because of their national origin
  • A professor grading a student more harshly because of their sex
  • A school failing to provide appropriate accommodations for a student with a learning disability

Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972 also prohibits sex discrimination in educational programs that receive federal funding. This includes discrimination against pregnant students and sexual harassment.

Law Enforcement Misconduct

Law enforcement officers are obligated to respect individuals’ civil rights. This means they cannot engage in practices like racial profiling, excessive force, or unlawful searches and seizures. For example, if a police officer pulls someone over solely because of their race, with no reasonable suspicion of a crime, that would violate the person’s civil rights. Similarly, if an officer uses more force than is necessary to arrest someone, that could be excessive force in violation of their constitutional rights. A question we come across frequently is whether it’s a civil rights violation anytime someone feels they’ve been treated unfairly by police. The answer is that it depends. Not all negative interactions with law enforcement are civil rights violations. There must be evidence that the officers intentionally discriminated based on a protected characteristic or clearly exceeded their authority.

Proving a Civil Rights Violation

Proving a civil rights violation involves demonstrating that you were discriminated against based on a protected characteristic. This process requires specific elements and types of evidence to support your claim.

Elements of a Claim

To prove a civil rights violation, you generally need to show three things:

  1. You are a member of a protected class
  2. You experienced a negative action or adverse treatment
  3. Your protected characteristic was the reason for the negative action

For example, let’s say you apply for a job and are highly qualified, but the employer rejects you. If you have evidence that they turned you down because of your religion, that could be religious discrimination in violation of your civil rights.


So, what kind of evidence do you need to prove a civil rights claim? It depends on the situation, but here are some common types of evidence:

  • Direct evidence: This is clear evidence of discrimination like an employer outright saying they won’t hire people of a certain race.
  • Circumstantial evidence: This is indirect evidence that implies discrimination. For example, if a company has a pattern of only promoting men despite having qualified women, that could be circumstantial evidence of sex discrimination.
  • Comparator evidence: This involves pointing to how others in a similar situation were treated. For instance, if a landlord approves applicants of one race but denies those of another race, that could be evidence of discrimination.

Building a strong discrimination case often requires gathering multiple pieces of evidence. An experienced civil rights attorney can help you identify and collect relevant evidence.

Remedies for Civil Rights Violations

If you believe your civil rights have been violated, you have options for seeking justice. The path you take will depend on factors like the type of violation, the severity of the harm, and your goals.

Filing a Complaint

One option is to file a complaint with the relevant government agency. For example:

These agencies can investigate your complaint and may try to resolve the issue through mediation or other means. In some cases, they may also file a lawsuit on your behalf.

You can also file a private lawsuit in state or federal court. However, you must first exhaust your administrative remedies by filing a complaint with the appropriate agency.

Potential Relief

If you prevail in a civil rights case, you may be entitled to various forms of relief, such as:

  • Injunctions ordering the defendant to stop the discriminatory conduct
  • Compensatory damages for any losses or emotional distress you suffered
  • Punitive damages to punish especially malicious or reckless violations
  • Attorney’s fees and court costs

The specific remedies will depend on the facts of your case and the applicable laws. A knowledgeable civil rights lawyer can assess what relief may be available to you.

Takeaways and Next Steps

Standing up for your civil rights takes courage, but it’s essential for creating a more just society. If you think you’ve experienced a civil rights violation, here are some key takeaways and steps to consider:

  • Know your rights: Familiarize yourself with the civil rights laws that protect you from discrimination.
  • Document everything: Keep records of any incidents of discrimination, including dates, times, locations, and witnesses. Save copies of any relevant emails, letters, or other documents.
  • Consult with an attorney: Civil rights cases can be complex, so it’s vital to have an experienced advocate on your side. Look for civil rights attorneys or legal aid organizations in your area.
  • Take action: Depending on your situation, you may need to file a complaint with a government agency or a lawsuit in court. An attorney can advise you on the best course of action.

Legal Funding from Mayfair for Civil Rights Violations

Remember, you have the right to be treated fairly and equally under the law. Don’t let anyone violate your civil rights without consequences!

If you need financial assistance to pursue a civil rights case, Mayfair Legal Funding can help. Their loan representatives can discuss your funding options and guide you through the application process. Call them at (888) 357-1338 to learn more.

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Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)

What's the statute of limitations for filing a civil rights lawsuit?

It varies depending on the specific law and circumstances. In general, most cases must be filed within 1-3 years, but some can be as short as 180 days. It’s crucial to act promptly and consult with an attorney about any deadlines.

Can I file a civil rights complaint anonymously?

It depends on the agency and type of complaint. Some agencies, like the EEOC, allow anonymous complaints, while others may require you to identify yourself. An attorney can advise you on your options for protecting your identity.

What if I can't afford an attorney?

There are several resources for low-cost or free legal help with civil rights cases. Many attorneys take cases on contingency, meaning they only get paid if you win. There are also legal aid organizations and civil rights nonprofits that provide free or sliding-scale services.

Can I be fired for filing a discrimination complaint?

No, that would be illegal retaliation. The law prohibits employers from retaliating against employees for asserting their civil rights or participating in discrimination proceedings. If you experience retaliation, you can file an additional complaint.