Enforcing Civil Rights

Every citizen is entitled to certain personal rights as outlined in the U.S. Constitution's Bill of Rights and in accordance to federal civil rights law, such as the Civil Rights Act and the Civil Rights Bill. Collectively referred to as "civil rights", these entitlements protect individuals from discrimination, inequity, and unfair treatment in all aspects of life. Civil rights can be applied to a wide variety of situations, such as discrimination of housing, discrimination of education, and discrimination of employment.

The most prominent and widely enforced civil rights include:

Medical providers and social service agencies are regulated by the Office of Civil Rights (OCR), part of the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services (HHS). These governmental facilities protect citizens from being denied benefits, health care, or human services based on race, nationality, age, gender, religious beliefs, or physical disability.

What to do if you think your civil rights have been violated

A civil rights violation can take many forms, from rental discrimination to employer discrimination to refusal of medical care. If you suspect that your rights have been infringed upon, the first step is to determine if the incidence violated a "protected right" that is specified in the U.S. Constitution or another civil rights law.

Begin by reviewing the existing anti-discriminatory laws. If you determine that a protected right was violated, you can pursue one of the following actions:

Begin informal negotiations

This is the quickest and most inexpensive means of addressing a possible violation. As an example, if you feel you were unfairly terminated from your job, you may choose to hold an attorney-mediated meeting with the employer, during which you'll draw up a contract agreement that satisfies both parties. The advantage of informal negotiations is that it eliminates the need for a long, drawn-out court case and extensive legal paperwork.

File a Government Claim

If mediation isn't a viable option, you can file an official complaint with the local, state, or Federal government. Depending on the details of the case, this is often a prerequisite to filing a private lawsuit. After your complaint is filed, the recipient agency will decide which level of government should handle your case based on which laws are involved. The designated agency will then launch an investigation to determine if a civil right was indeed violated. In some cases, the state and Federal government will work together.

File a Private Lawsuit

If your civil rights have been infringed upon, you may have the option to file a private lawsuit against the perpetrator. The first step is to file a complaint with the court, in which you'll detail the sequence of events that led to the alleged violation and any subsequent damages that were incurred.

There are several questions to consider before and during the filing of a lawsuit:

  • Where should you file? Depending on the details of your case, you may have the freedom to decide whether to file your suit in Federal or state court; with other cases, the law may dictate where you have to file.
  • Do you need to file a government claim? You may be required to file a claim with a government agency before proceeding with a lawsuit. Again, the applicable laws will determine if this is a prerequisite. Most agencies set time limits for how long claims can be filed after the alleged violation. After filing your claim, the government agency may issue a letter granting you permission to proceed with a private lawsuit.
  • What are the phases of a civil case? A typical lawsuit proceeds through the following stages: the filing of court papers, discovery and information-gathering, pre-trial motions and resolutions, the trial and verdict, the settlement of financial awards, and an optional appeals process.
  • What happens during trial? As the plaintiff, you and your legal team will work to demonstrate to the court that the defendant has violated your civil rights. To illustrate this, you'll present all facts, events, and evidence that were gathered during the discovery process.
  • Do you need an attorney? If you plan to pursue a private lawsuit for a civil rights violation, it's in your best interests to retain a civil rights attorney who specializes in this arena. Your attorney can provide expert recommendations to help you make informed decisions throughout the filing process and trial.

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