Most people are aware that, in the United States, we have civil rights that protect us from all sorts of unfair and discriminatory treatment by government agencies, businesses, groups, and individuals. But civil rights law in the U.S. can be complicated because it is based on a combination of provisions found in our Constitution as well as federal and state law. It’s important to have a basic understanding of how this complex area of law works, so you know how to handle it if you are confronted with a potential civil rights violation or denied personal liberties in your daily life.
Where Do Our Civil Rights Come From?
When people talk about civil rights, they can mean many different things. Sometimes they are referring to the basic rights set forth in the U.S. Constitution, such as freedom of speech, the right to vote, and the right to a fair trial. These Constitutional rights protect us from unjust treatment by the government.
But Congress has also passed a series of statutes, such as the Civil Rights Act, that protect us from all kinds of discrimination – both by the government and private entities — based on a variety of factors including race, religion, sex, disability, and age. They apply in many different contexts, including the workplace, housing, public accommodations, and education. Pennsylvania civil rights law, including the Pennsylvania Human Relations Act, largely mirror federal law.
What Are Some Examples of Civil Rights Violations?
To understand the concept of civil rights, it’s helpful to consider how our civil rights may be violated:
- A police officer uses excessive force and brutally beats a citizen.
- A police investigator falsifies evidence or coerces a confession to obtain a conviction.
- Police interfere with protesters who are staging a peaceful protest.
- A landlord refuses to rent an apartment to someone because of his race.
- An employee is harassed, fired, or otherwise discriminated against because of her gender.
- A restaurant refuses to serve a patron based on his religion.
What Damages Are Awarded for Civil Rights Violations?
When a person’s personal liberties have been denied, they may be entitled to recovery compensation, which can take different forms.
Compensatory damages are intended to make the person whole, including payment or reimbursement for intangible injuries such as psychological harm as well as tangible harm such as financial or property losses and physical harm. These types of damages may include medical bills, loss or reduction in earnings, lost profits, pain and suffering, or mental and emotional distress.
If the civil rights violations are the result of malicious or “recklessly indifferent” conduct, a judge or jury has the discretion to award punitive damages. Such damages are intended to punish the defendant’s unlawful conduct and deter others from repeating these abuses.
Contact a Pennsylvania Civil Rights Lawyer
If you feel that your civil rights have been violated, it’s critical that you contact an experienced civil rights attorney to evaluate your situation. Depending upon the facts and circumstances, you may be required to pursue your action with a government agency before filing a lawsuit in court, and you will have to decide whether your claim is best pursued under state law, federal law, or both. There are rules – known as statutes of limitation – that restrict the amount of time in which you can file a complaint. We can help you decide the best course of action to pursue your claim.