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Curious about your civil rights legal issue?

Read below.

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Frequently Asked Questions

For purposes of this overview, civil rights can generally be thought of as constitutional rights, that is, rights that are protected by the United States Constitution. This would be things like the right to be free from unreasonable searches and seizures; the right to equal protection under the law; and the right to free speech.

In the criminal setting, these rights are enforceable through the ordinary criminal process. For example, if a police officer conducts an unconstitutional search of someone and finds incriminating evidence, that evidence may be suppressed at trial because the police officer acted unconstitutionally.

Over time, Congress recognized that citizens also needed a private (civil) way to enforce their constitutional rights. After all, not every case proceeds all the way to a criminal trial. Congress took action by passing legislation.

The most commonly used law for enforcing civil rights is 42 U.S.C. § 1983. This law is pretty straightforward—if a state or local government employee uses their government position to violate a citizen’s constitutional rights, the citizen can file a lawsuit. The citizen can recover damages (money) and, in some cases, their attorney’s fees, thereby encouraging private enforcement of this law. 

Civil rights claims come in a lot of shapes and sizes, including claims involving police officer misconduct (excessive force), gender or race discrimination in public employment (equal protection), and restricting speech (free speech). Sometimes, these constitutional claims can even be joined with other civil rights claims that are protected by other laws.

Employment discrimination is when an employer discriminates against a job applicant or current employee based on some type of protected trait or characteristic. By protected “trait” or “characteristic,” the law generally recognizes things like race, color, national origin, gender (often including pregnancy and sexual orientation), religion, and disability. 

Sexual harassment is typically considered a type of gender discrimination; thus, sexual harassment is also employment discrimination.

Employment discrimination also includes situations where an employer retaliates against someone for making a complaint of discrimination or supporting someone who has made a complaint of discrimination (e.g., testifying as a witness).

Employment discrimination is illegal and victims can oftentimes pursue their case in court.

Yes. Even if someone is in jail or prison, they still have civil rights. Those rights are limited, but not completely gone.

The most common civil rights issue prisoners face pertains to medical care. Jail officials have a responsibility to facilitate necessary medical care for people in their custody. According to the legal standard, “deliberate indifference” to a prisoner’s health needs may be considered a civil rights violation.

In the legal context, accessibility generally means making things accessible to people with disabilities. There are a lot of different laws that govern accessibility. 

Federally, the major law is the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). The ADA prohibits discrimination against people with disabilities in employment, in services offered by public entities (e.g., state and local governments), and in services offered by businesses that serve the public (e.g., stores and restaurants). Another major federal law is the Rehabilitation Act, which generally prohibits discrimination based on disability by federal agencies, federal contractors, and entities that accept federal funds (e.g., local school districts).

States often have accessibility laws also. For instance, Texas has Human Resources Code, Chapter 21. That law is read in conjunction with Government Code, Chapter 469, and the Texas Accessibility Standards. The Texas Labor Code, Chapter 21, also prohibits employment discrimination based on someone’s disability.

These laws collectively cover things like employment, housing, interpreters, architecture, and even websites.

The term “disability” can be defined in a variety of ways. But in the context of disability discrimination, the most widely-accepted definition comes from the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), found at 42 U.S.C. 12102.

Under that definition, disability means a physical or mental impairment that “substantially limits” one of more “major life activities” of an individual, a record of such an impairment, or being regarded as having such an impairment. 

The phrase “major life activities” includes a lot of activities, such as caring for oneself, performing manual tasks, seeing, hearing, eating, sleeping, walking, standing, lifting, bending, speaking, breathing, learning, reading, concentrating, thinking, communicating, and working. It also includes the operation of major bodily functions, such as someone’s immune or respiratory system.