Civil Rights FAQs
Below are the answers to several questions frequently encountered by the attorneys at the Salem law office of Vick & Glantz LLP, as they bring actions to redress civil rights violations perpetrated by the police, government agencies, and other actors. If you have other questions, see our general page on Civil Rights for more information, or contact our office for a free consultation regarding a specific matter.
Q. What is Section 1983?
A. Section 1983 refers to a federal statute, 42 USC §1983, which allows a civil action for deprivation of rights. In order to file a section 1983 claim, the defendant must be a "state actor," which can be a government agency employee or person acting "under color of law." Section 1983 is a powerful tool for redressing wrongs committed by the police or other government authority. Since it is a federal statute, Section 1983 can be especially helpful when local or state government officials are implicated; pursuing a federal action in these cases may help avoid actual or perceived bias at the state level.
Q. What about employment discrimination and fair housing laws?
A. Many local, state and federal laws have been written to protect people from discrimination and harassment in employment and housing, as well as public accommodations, government benefits, and many other areas. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 protects individuals from discrimination on the basis of race, color, national origin, religion, and sex (gender). The Americans with Disabilities Act protects people from discrimination on the basis of disability. There are many other laws at the federal level as well, including the Pregnancy Discrimination Act, the Equal Pay Act, and the Age Discrimination in Employment Act. At the state level, Chapter 659A covers unlawful discrimination in employment, public accommodations, and real property transactions.
Q. How do I file a civil rights complaint?
A. Depending upon the nature of your claim, you may file a state-level complaint with the Civil Rights Division of the Bureau of Labor and Industries (BOLI) or a federal complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC). Each avenue has its own procedures and requirements. In either avenue, the government agency will have a period of time to investigate your claim and attempt to settle the matter. The agency may decide to pursue legal action on your behalf, or you may be issued a "right to sue letter." This letter means that the government is not going to pursue any action against the alleged wrongdoer, but you are free to pursue a civil action on your own if you wish.
The process from filing a complaint to receiving notice of right to sue can be several months or up to a year in some cases. Once you have received the notice, you may have only a limited time frame in which to initiate an action on your own behalf. It is a good idea to contact an attorney as soon as possible in the process, so that a case can be prepared and initiated without delay if necessary. Also, in some cases, you do not have to go to EEOC first but can initiate a lawsuit right away. Make sure you retain a lawyer who is well-versed in all the applicable laws and will pursue your remedy in the most advantageous way available.