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Addressing Race Discrimination Complaints Under Federal and State Laws

 Posted on January 07, 2019 in Workplace Discrimination

Pittsburgh EEOC race discrimination claim attorneyGiven that racial discrimination by employers is prohibited nationwide by the U.S. Civil Rights Act, you may wonder why Pennsylvania has passed a virtually identical law at the state level. You may also wonder how the federal and state agencies work together to investigate race discrimination complaints without duplicating each other’s efforts. 

Federal vs. Pennsylvania State Laws on Race Discrimination

Federal law. Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibits discrimination on the basis of race (and several other factors) by employers with 15 or more employees. This law established the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commision (EEOC), which is tasked with publishing regulations and guidelines to help employers understand and comply with the law, investigating and resolving discrimination complaints, and generally enforcing the law. 

Pennsylvania state law. The Pennsylvania Fair Employment Practice Act—since retitled to the Pennsylvania Human Relations Act (PHRA)—was originally enacted in 1955, nearly a decade before the federal Civil Rights Act. Like Title VII, the Pennsylvania law prohibits discrimination against employees on the basis of race (and several other factors). 

Whereas federal law applies to employers of 15 or more people, the Pennsylvania law applies to employers with four or more employees within the state. Thus, an employer who may not be in violation of the federal law could be found in violation of the state law. 

This law established the Pennsylvania Human Relations Commission (PHRC), which basically does the same thing as the EEOC, but only within the state.

Federal vs. State Investigation of Discrimination Complaints

When a Pennsylvania employee believes they have been subjected to unlawful discrimination by an employer, the process generally starts by filing a complaint with the PHRC. In general, you have 180 calendar days (six months) after an incident to file a claim, or you will not be able to pursue that claim at all.

If a complaint alleges a violation of both state and federal law, the PHRC will dual-file the complaint with the EEOC (and vice versa, if the complaint was first filed with the EEOC). This saves the employee from having to open two separate cases. Typically, the PHRC will lead the investigation and report their results to the EEOC, although sometimes the EEOC takes the lead on an investigation. Either way, the employee’s rights are protected under both state and federal law.

Note that you cannot file a lawsuit for racial discrimination against an employer without first filing an administrative complaint and allowing the relevant state or federal agency to attempt to reach an out-of-court settlement with the employer. An employee is required to exhaust all administrative remedies before filing a lawsuit.

Federal vs. State Remedies and Damages

Pennsylvania state remedies. An employee whose complaint is proven valid may receive compensatory damages (with no specific dollar limit) and attorney fees, but not punitive damages. Other available remedies include: 

  • Hiring - if the employee was discriminated against during the hiring process.
  • Reinstatement to their old position - if the employee was terminated or demoted due to unlawful racial discrimination.
  • Promotion - if the employee was denied a promotion due to racial discrimination.
  • Back pay related to any of the above situations.
  • Other legal or equitable relief deemed appropriate.

Federal remedies. The federal EEOC may order the following types of relief:

  • Remedies such as hiring, restatement, promotion, and back pay.
  • Attorney’s fees and court costs.
  • An order to the employer to cease discriminatory practices.
  • Compensatory and, in some cases, punitive damages may be awarded, but are limited based on the size of the employer. For employers with 15 to 100 employees, the limit is $50,000. For employers with more than 500 employees, the limit is $300,000.
  • Compensatory damages may be limited to actual out-of-pocket expenses resulting from the discrimination, but they may also include compensation for emotional harm suffered.
  • Punitive damages are only awarded in cases where the employer’s actions were particularly malicious or reckless.

Consult an Allegheny County Race Discrimination Lawyer

Both federal and state laws prohibit race-based discrimination by employers, but the laws can be complex, and substantial proof is required to support a complaint. A knowledgeable Pittsburgh employment discrimination attorney can help you understand whether you have a valid complaint and how to file your complaint so as to have the best chance of a positive outcome. To request a free consultation, call Colianni & Leonard LLC at 412-680-7877.


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