New Civil Rights Bill Contains Some Important Legal Fixes

A bill recently introduced before Congress is designed to fix some of the most persistent problems faced by those bringing employment discrimination lawsuits, and will correct some of the most damaging U.S. Supreme Court decisions in recent years. On February 10, FAIRNESS: the Civil Rights Act of 2004 (PDF of House version), was introduced before Congress. While the bill faces an uncertain future in this session of Congress, it sets the stage for repairing some of the erosion to major civil rights legislation suffered in recent years.

Here are just some of the highlights of FAIRNESS:

Improves age discrimination remedies

This bill provides damages for state workers who are victims of age discrimination in employment, overruling the Supreme Court decision in Kimel v. Fla. Bd of Regents, 528 U.S. 62 (2000), which held that states are immune to damage suits by employees under the Age Discrimination in Employment Act. The bill also prohibits polices and practices that have an unjustified discriminatory effect on persons 40 years of age, allowing older workers to bring what are known as “disparate impact” claims.

Prevents employers from forcing workers to sign away their right to a day in court.

The bill makes it illegal for employers to force workers to give up their right to bring discrimination and labor claims to court by signing a mandatory arbitration agreement. This overrules Circuit City Stores v. Adams, 532 U.S. 105 (2001), which held that it is not illegal for employers to force workers to arbitrate employment discrimination and unfair labor disputes in order to obtain a job.

Gives all workers adequate remedies for unfair labor practices. Recent decisions have denied state workers and undocumented workers the ability to get full relief in court for unfair labor practices. This bill responds to Alden v. Maine, 527 U.S. 706 (1999), which prevents state workers from seeking relief in state court when their state employer violates the Fair Labor Standards Act, and Hoffman Plastic Compounds v. NLRB, 535 U.S. 137 (2002), which denied lost wages to an undocumented worker illegally fired for joining a union.

Enhances enforcement of the Equal Pay Act. Loopholes in the Equal Pay Act have prevented working women from realizing the full promise of equal pay for equal work. This bill will counteract decisions broadly interpreting the “factor other than sex” defense, which have allowed employers to argue, for example, that if a man previously had a higher salary, he can be paid more than a comparable female employee doing the same job. These types of factors are inherently discriminatory and contradict the very purpose of the EPA.

Other groups of individuals protected by the new legislation: those who suffer discrimination when using federally funded services; state employees who serve in the military who encounter discrimination based on their military status; students who face harassment based on race, gender, national origin, color, and disability; and disabled and older employees subjected to intentional discrimination.

The fight for FAIRNESS is being led by the Leadership Conference for Civil Rights (LCCR), the leading coalition of national civil rights organizations, and endorsed by its member groups, including our allied organization NELA. The LCCR web site has a great deal of material about FAIRNESS, including much of the content included here, and will be a key ongoing resource in this fight, which could last for many years to come.

While many workers may not understand just how important this legislation is, especially if they are not currently engaged in their own discrimination battle against an employer or other entity, it is important to remember that if the civil rights laws cannot be fully enforced to deter discrimination, there is little incentive for employers to comply with existing law. The existence of all these loopholes and exceptions created by the Supreme Court and followed by the lower courts means that not all employers are suffering the consequences of discriminating against employees, and that someday, maybe even sometime soon, you could be one of the employees without any way to fight back. So it is extremely important that all workers, even those not personally affected by this legislation, speak out and let their members of Congress know that the civil rights laws need fixing, and that FAIRNESS is a key step in doing so.

Take Action: Urge Members of Congress to Cosponsor FAIRNESS

News Article: Updates of Civil Rights Urged

NELA’s Bruce Fredrickson joins other Civil Rights Advocates on Why You Should Care

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Madeline Messa

Madeline Messa is a 3L at Syracuse University College of Law. She graduated from Penn State with a degree in journalism. With her legal research and writing for Workplace Fairness, she strives to equip people with the information they need to be their own best advocate.