Racial Discrimination at Work: Legal Remedies

Learn what an employer can be ordered to pay -- and do -- if a judge or jury finds that it committed race discrimination.

Race discrimination at work is prohibited by two federal statutes: Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and Section 1981 of the Civil Rights Act of 1866. Both laws prohibit employers from treating employees differently because of their race, and both apply to every aspect of the employment relationship, from hiring to firing. However, if an employee wins a race discrimination lawsuit, the remedies available depend on the statute.

Most states also prohibit race discrimination, and they may provide for different remedies than those discussed below. To find out what your state's law provides, contact your state fair employment practices agency.

Remedies Available Under Title VII

If an employee wins a lawsuit for race discrimination under Title VII, the employer can be required to:

  • pay lost wages (often called "back pay") to compensate the employee for money lost due to discrimination; for example, if the employee was fired illegally, the employer can be ordered to pay what the employee would have earned
  • pay the employee's out-of-pocket costs (for example, if the employee was fired and had to pay for health insurance or job search services, the employer could be required to pay those expenses)
  • take action to remedy the discrimination, such as reinstating a fired employee, promoting an employee who was unfairly passed over, implementing diversity training, or ceasing to use a standardized hiring test that disproportionately screens out members of certain racial groups
  • pay the employee's court costs and attorney fees
  • pay the employee for emotional distress, and
  • pay punitive damages, intended to punish the employer for wrongdoing.

Under Title VII, these last two types of damages -- damages for emotional distress (sometimes called "pain and suffering" damages or compensatory damages) and punitive damages -- combined are capped at an amount between $50,000 and $300,000, depending on the size of the employer.

Remedies Available Under Section 1981

An employee who wins a lawsuit under Section 1981 can receive all of the remedies available under Title VII, with one huge difference: There is no cap on the total amount of damages an employee can be awarded for emotional distress and punitive damages. Because these damages often make up the largest share of an employee's award, the opportunity to win unlimited damages prompts many lawyers to file a Section 1981 claim for race discrimination, either instead of or in addition to a Title VII claim.

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