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A Brief Overview of Civil Rights Cases

Posted by attorney Edward Dowling

There are many different types of Civil Rights cases. This article will focus on some of the more well known ones which are as follows :

1) False Arrest and/or False Imprisonment : If a defendant in a criminal case was either falsely arrested and/or falsely imprisoned after a conviction of a crime, he may be able to sue in a Civil Court under various Federal and/or State laws, the most well known Federal Law being 42 USC 1983. A section 1983 case is where the plaintiff ( the defendant in the criminal case ) sues in Federal Court for violations of his Constitutional and/or Statutory civil rights ( such as the right to be free from unreasonable searches and seizures, false arrest, false imprisonment, invasion of privacy, violation of right to free speech, right to bear arms, police brutality etc. ) by state actors acting under state law . In many section 1983 cases the plaintiff must prove the violation of his civil rights was caused by action of state employees pursuant to policy or custom or practice of the municipality. In these types of cases, in order for the defendant to be a plaintiff and sue for violations of his civil rights, he must first show that he was wrongfully convicted or if arrested, but not convicted, that he was acquitted or the charges were dropped. If he can not do this then he can not file a civil case. There is an exception for a case in which the plaintiff alleges police brutality, in that he can still sue even if convicted of the charges.

2) Discrimination in Housing, Public accommodation for disabled individuals, discrimination in educational institutions.

3) Discrimination in Employment based on Age, Race, Ethnic Background, National Origin, Religion, Disability, Marital Status, Sex and Sexual Harrassment.

In general, discrimination cases all have the same basic procedures and burdens of proof regardless of what type of discrimination ( age, race etc ) it is based on, with some differences depending on whether the discrimination is with regard to Housing, Public accommodations, education or employment.

This article will discuss discrimination in employment, although it generally applies to the other forms of discrimination mentioned.

In employment discrimination the Plaintiff, whether filing with a state agency such as the NY State Division of Human Rights or the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission or in a Federal or State Court must establish the following :

1) Adverse employment action was taken against him by the employer. Adverse employment action includes, but is not limited to, transfer to another part of the company, a cut in pay and/or benefits, a demotion in title or status or responsibility, suspension and of course a termination of employment.

2) That the adverse action was taken because of unlawful discrimination and the discrimination was based on one of the statutory categories ( such as age, race etc ) .

3) The Plaintiff must show that the discrimination , if not the sole cause of the adverse action, was at least a motivating factor for it.

4) That plaintiff was damaged as a result of the discrimination. This is usually not a problem because the adverse action ( termination for example ) is part of the damages sustained ( loss of income etc ).

If the plaintiff meets the burden of showing these things ( called making a prima facie case), then the burden of proof then shifts to the employer to show that the adverse action was taken for a legitimate non-discriminatory reason ( such as a reduction in work force or down sizing due to less business due to a poor economy or other business reasons, or poor job performance on the part of the employee). If the employer can show this, then the burden of proof shifts once again back to the plaintiff to show that the employer’s so called non discriminatory reason is a mere pretext and the real reason for the adverse action is that the employer unlawfully discriminated against the employee.

The outcome of these cases at trial turns on the specific facts of the case and whether Plaintiff can meet his ultimate burden of proving that discrimination was at least a motivating factor behind the adverse action taken against him.

The elements of damages in both Section 1983 cases and in discrimination cases can include but is not limited to, out of pocket expenses including medical expenses (if personal injury is involved like in a police brutality case ), emotional distress damages, loss of past income, loss of future income potential, loss of consortium ( damage to relationship- physical and emotional) of a spouse, pain and suffering, attorney fees( not in all cases-usually only in Federal cases) and costs of the litigation.

In many Civil Rights Cases, other than those based on discrimination, there is a requirement that before plaintiff can file the case, he must first file either, a Notice of Claim (if against a municipal defendant) or a Notice of Intent to File a Claim ( if against a state ) These Notices usually must be filed within 90 days of the incident , but in some cases it may be a shorter period such as 60 or 30 days, therefore someone contemplating filing a Civil Rights Lawsuit should consult an attorney as soon as possible so as not to miss any required time periods to file the prerequisite notice. Failure to file the Notice usually means the plaintiff can not file the lawsuit even though the Statute of Limitations in which to file the lawsuit has not expired.

Watch for future articles on Criminal and Civil Law.

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