Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 is a federal employment law that prohibits employment discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex (including pregnancy), and national origin. Title VII gives employees a private right to action. However, such claims cannot be brought against a specific individual, such as a supervisor. Rather, employers are subject to vicarious liability to violations caused by its managing employees. Adverse employment actions and hostile work environments are examples of circumstances that can support a claim under Title VII.
Adverse employment actions are actions that cause a significant change in employment status, such as hiring, firing, failing to promote, and reassignment with significantly different responsibilities. For example, an employee's reassignment to a more arduous and less prestigious position, due to her gender, constitutes an adverse employment action.
Under Title VII, a hostile work environment exists when the workplace is "permeated with discriminatory, intimidation, ridicule, and insult, that is sufficiently severe or pervasive to alter the conditions of the victim's employment and create an abusive working environment." For example, evidence of sexual harassment is sufficient to show a hostile work environment.
Title VII also imposes an obligation to employers to reasonably accommodate employees, such as leaves for religious observance or practice. The standard for such accommodations is a reasonable one, and the employer may refute accommodations that impose undue hardship on the employer's business. For example, the Supreme Court has held that unpaid leave for religious absences constitutes a reasonable accommodation to refute a claim under Title VII. However, it is also noted that unpaid leave would not be a reasonable accommodation if paid leave is provided for all purposes except religious ones.
Title VII is not the exclusive authority on employment discrimination law. Indeed, the Equal Pay Act (EPA) is another federal employment law giving employees a private right to action for discriminatory pay. However, Title VII cover types of wage discrimination not actionable under the EPA. A plaintiff may bring a claim under both the EPA and title VII so long as the plaintiff does not receive duplicative relief.
Moreover, many states have their own employment discrimination laws. For example, in New York, the Human Rights Law prohibits employers from refusing employment or fair compensation because of (among other characteristics) race, creed, color, national origin. Title VII does not preempt such state laws so long as they do not allow for acts that would be illegal under Title VII. As a result, state laws may supplement and even cover some shortcomings of Title VII. Nonetheless, concurrent with the preemption clause, Title VII may preempt state laws where those laws frustrate the purpose or execution of the federal law.
[Last updated in October of 2021 by the Wex Definitions Team]