Employment Discrimination School, Part 2 (Overview, State Law)

Future blog posts will discuss federal discrimination law, but it is always important to remember that state law is at play. In some instances, a state’s anti-discrimination law will mimic the federal discrimination in important respects.   This post covers some differences that often exist between state and federal law.

In some cases, state statutes provide greater protection than their federal counterparts. For example, the term “employer” is defined under some federal statutes as covering only those employers with a certain minimum number of employees. Employees who work for companies with fewer than fifteen employees do not fall within the employment discrimination protections of Title VII or the ADA, and a private employer must have at least fifty employees to fall within the reach of the FMLA. As a result, individuals who work for smaller employers often must rely on state statutes for discrimination protection.

Some state statutes provide protections for the same classes of individuals as the federal statutes, but define the protections differently. For example, while the ADEA offers age discrimination protection only for those 40 and older, some states protect employees who are younger than 40 from age discrimination.

In other instances, state statutes protect different categories of individuals from discrimination. For example, some states protect victims of domestic violence from discrimination, others prohibit discrimination because a person has a GED, and others protect workers from discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity.

Federal and state statutes often provide different remedies. For example, a plaintiff proceeding on an ADEA discrimination claim cannot recover punitive damages or emotional distress damages; however, some state statutes allow age discrimination plaintiffs to recover both types of damages. Under Title VII, the amount of punitive and emotional distress damages that a plaintiff may obtain is limited by statutory caps. Some state discrimination regimes do not provide a statutory cap for such damages or have higher statutory caps. On the opposite end of the spectrum, some state discrimination statutes do not allow recovery of punitive damages at all, while others cap punitive damages at lower points than federal legislation. While some of the federal statutes do not allow lawsuits to proceed against individual supervisors, some state statutes provide for individual liability.

While most states’ discrimination statutes are construed to be in line with federal law, some are not. As federal discrimination law has differentiated the ADEA from Title VII, many state laws can no longer mimic federal law. This is because states often have unitary statutes that prohibit discrimination against all protected classes in one statute. This is in contrast to federal law, which prohibits age discrimination in a separate statute (the ADEA) from sex and race discrimination (Title VII). Federal law also provides a separate statute for disability discrimination (the ADA).

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