Civil Rights law can be confusing, and people often aren’t really sure what kind of a case a “civil rights” case is. Our firm has been litigating civil rights cases for many years, and the most common thing we see is confusion about Civil Rights vs. Criminal Cases. Sexual harassment allegations, workplace discrimination, and religious freedom violations can all be considered civil rights cases when the employer is the government. If their employer is not the government however, then different laws and rules may apply to an “employment discrimination case” against a private company. 

In short, a civil rights lawsuit is when a citizen accuses a governmental agent (like a police officer), acting under the pretense of his lawful authority, of violating his or her rights under the United States Constitution. It is possible to file a civil rights lawsuit merely because the government has violated your Constitutional Rights; but most people do not proceed with a lawsuit unless the violation of their rights has directly lead to significant injury or harm, for which they seek compensation. 

Misconceptions About Civil Rights

I can sue someone for violating my civil rights. 

Suing a private citizen for some wrong they have committed against you is not considered a civil rights law suit. The two tell-tale signs of a civil rights lawsuit are: 1) that the government or its agents are the defendant(s); and 2) the defendant(s) are accused of violating a citizen’s rights under the United States Constitution. The first step is understanding if you have a civil rights case

Civil Rights cases are common and easy. 

There are very many factors that go into civil rights litigation and whether or not a case is likely to succeed – or is even possible. Sometimes government actions that may seem like a blatant violation of the Constitution actually aren’t at all or the defendant may have “immunity” from being sued for said action. Complaints against government action are common; civil rights cases are always complicated and often difficult to prove. 

Sexual Harassment is a Civil Rights Violation. 

As odd as it seems, a sexual harassment complaint – like other workplace discrimination complaints – can be governed by entirely different sets of laws and rules depending on whether the employer is a private employer or a public one (the government). All workplace discrimination cases are covered by a federal law that allows individuals to sue their employer for such conduct. This law applies to any employee regardless of employer. Civil Rights are when the government is being sued for violating the constitution, which is authorized by a different federal law, 42 U.S.C. § 1983. Because the law is section “1983” in the United States Code, they are sometimes called “1983 cases.” So, if the person is sexually harassed at work, they have two separate (and perhaps a third, state law) laws to use to assert their rights. How to do so and what the best approaches are for your case can be complicated questions that need to be addressed by attorneys experienced in handling such cases. 

My freedom of speech cannot be violated. 

This is partially true in public places or government locations, but it does not necessarily apply in private companies and on private property. For instance, it is often asked rhetorically “what happened to freedom of speech?” after some celebrity loses endorsement deals or is fired from their hit TV show after saying or doing something controversial. But the Constitution does not force private employers to employ such people; it prohibits the government from punishing people for what they say. 

I cannot file my civil rights case own. 

You are always able to represent yourself if you choose to do so. If you have enough time and put in enough work, some people do surprisingly good jobs representing themselves. But civil rights law is complicated and far more difficult to navigate even for seasoned lawyers. It is easy to leave out an important claim or not request the disclosure of an important policy or document that may be the difference between being able to pursue the lawsuit and a judge finding the defendant(s) immune from being sued. The complicated nature of civil rights litigation is best handled by experienced civil rights attorneys. 

Civil Rights are the same throughout the U.S. 

Basic civil rights remain consistent throughout the country because they are governed by federal statutes and the Federal Constitution. But the time you have to file a lawsuit (an extremely important issue) is governed by state law and is therefore different depending on the state the events occurred in. Additionally, some states may have their own claims that can be pursued against government agents that wouldn’t exist under federal law. 

Getting denied a job or school entry for race-related reasons is a Civil Rights violation. 

These types of situations are very hard to prove when there can be several reasons or excuses used to justify the decision. It is best to consult an attorney to evaluate the case potential. Again, whether such actions would be dealt with under civil rights law would depend at least in part on whether the government was the bad actor or not. 

Your attorney fees are paid. 

Like many other court cases, your attorney fees can potentially be paid for by the government or party against whom you are filing the lawsuit if you win the case. Similarly, however, the government could try to make you pay their attorney fees and costs should you lose. All that said, it is rare for a judge to award the winning party “all” the attorney’s fees and costs they actually spent on the case.  

These are only a handful of areas that can be confusing in relation to civil rights. These are all reasons why it is best to speak with an attorney about your questions or potential case before legal proceedings begin. 

Contact James Law Group Today

Civil Rights is something many people have fought long and hard for in America, and when your rights have been violated, it is essential to defend them in the best way you can. Many civil rights organizations can assist with further information, and we are always happy to answer your questions if you reach out.


DISCLAIMER: *Information contained within this article is not official legal advice.*