Civil Rights Laws

What is the law's purpose?

The purpose of the law is to protect the rights of people to employment free of unlawful discrimination.

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Generally, it is unlawful to treat people less favorably than others because of their protected class. The law prohibits discrimination in employment-related actions such as:

  • Pay
  • Promotion
  • Job assignments
  • Leave or benefits
  • Training
  • Licensing or union membership
  • Demotion
  • Lay-off and firing
  • Other employment related actions
  • Recruitment and Hiring
  • Retaliation against persons who assert their rights under the fair employment law, the family and medical leave law, and other labor standards laws.
  • Harassment on the job because of a person's sex or because of their particular protected class.
  • Engaging in most types of Genetic Testing or giving an improper Honesty Test.

Yes, there are times when an employer may “legally” discriminate even though a person may otherwise be protected under the law. While legal exceptions are very limited and uncommon, a few examples of cases where an exception might apply include:

  • Conviction Record: An employer may reject an applicant or fire an employee whose conviction is substantially related to the job.
  • Age: In certain physically dangerous or hazardous jobs an employer may set maximum age requirements.
  • Marital Status: An employer may prevent a person from directly supervising his or her spouse.
  • Disability: In limited cases, employment of a person with a disability may present a significant risk of real harm to the health or safety of the individual or others.
Protected Class Year WI Adopted Federal Laws
Race Generally, a member of a group united or classified together on the basis of common history, nationality or geography. 1945 Title VII
Color Black to white and all colors in between. 1945 Title VII
Creed Religious, moral or ethical beliefs about right and wrong that are sincerely held. Employer has a “duty to accommodate." 1945 Title VII
Ancestry The country, nation, tribe or other identifiable group from which one descends. 1945 Title VII
National Origin Generally a member of a nation by origin, birth or naturalization or having common origins or traditions. 1945 Title VII
Age Being age 40 or older. 1959 Title VII
Sex/Gender Being female or male. 1961 Title VII & EPA
Disability Physical or mental impairment making achievement difficult or limiting the capacity; having a record of or being perceived as having a work disability. Employer has a “duty to accommodate.” 1965 ADA
Arrest/Conviction Record Information indicating a person was questioned, arrested, charged or convicted of a felony or misdemeanor. 1977 ---
Marital Status Status of being married, single, divorced, separated or widowed. 1982 ---
Sexual Orientation Having a preference for heterosexuality, homosexuality or bisexuality; having a history of or being identified as having such a preference. 1982 ---
Military Service Member of the U.S. armed forces, national guard, state defense force or other state or federal reserve unit. 1987 ---
Outside Lawful
Use or nonuse of lawful products (e.g., tobacco, alcohol) off the employer’s premises during nonworking hours. 1992 ---

Federal laws differ from state laws, as do procedures for complaint handling. The most common federal laws that might apply are shown on the chart above:

  • Title VII is part of the Civil Rights Actof 1964, as amended, 42 U.S.C. § 2000e
  • ADEA is the Age Discrimination in Employment Act, 29 U.S.C. §§ 621-643
  • ADA is the Americans with Disabilities Act, 42 U.S.C. §12101 et seq.
  • EPA is the Equal Pay Act of 1964, 29 U.S.C. § 206

For more details on these laws and information about filing a federal discrimination complaint, contact: U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC)

The Complaint Process

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A person who believes he or she has been discriminated against because of unlawful employment discrimination may file a complaint with the Equal Rights Division within 300 days of the alleged discrimination.

  • A complaint form with instructions is available from the Division. The form is also available at the division’s website. Please see the end of this pamphlet for the telephone numbers and addresses of our two main division offices, as well as our website address

Resolution of some cases may take longer than one year. The Division makes every effort to settle or resolve cases in a timely manner.

The complaint is assigned to an equal rights officer to be investigated. The investigator acts impartially and independently and represents neither the complainant (person filing the complaint) nor the respondent (employer being complained against). The investigator cannot give legal advice to the parties. An attorney should be contacted if legal advice is needed by either party. (The division can provide a list of attorneys who handle fair employment cases).

After a complaint is received, a copy is sent to the respondent, who must provide a written answer to the complaint. The investigator may contact the complainant after receiving this answer and may want more information from the parties or any witnesses. The investigator may ask the parties if they want to resolve the case through a settlement.

Settlement is often a good option for both parties.Staff is trained to assist the parties to work out a fair and equitable resolution. They can also help draft a voluntary agreement. The merits of settlement should be seriously considered by the parties at any time in the process, even up to the day of a formal hearing. Let us know if you would like more details on the merits of settlement and how it is handled.

If a case is not settled, the equal rights officer will complete an investigation and then write an initial determination of whether there is "Probable Cause" or "No Probable Cause" to believe the law has been violated.

Probable Cause (PC) is not a finding of discrimination. It means there was enough believable information about discrimination to send the case on for a hearing on its merits.

No Probable Cause (NPC) means there wasn't enough evidence of discrimination to believe that the law has been violated. It does not always mean there was no discrimination. The case is dismissed, unless the complainant files a written appeal within 30 days.

A discrimination hearing is similar to a court proceeding. Both parties present evidence under oath before an Administrative Law Judge (ALJ).

The ALJ reviews the evidence and hears testimony of witnesses, then issues a decision on whether or not discrimination occurred. All relevant evidence and testimony must be presented at this hearing. It is the only chance for the parties to do so. Information given earlier to the investigator is not considered at the hearing.

The ALJ cannot represent either party. Legal counsel may be advisable at this point, but is not required.

  • If discrimination is proven, an ALJ can make the complainant “whole” by awarding back pay, reinstatement, lost benefits, interest and attorney’s fees and costs. Other remedies may be awarded, based upon the circumstances of the case.
  • An ALJ cannot award damages for humiliation or emotional pain, or for punitive damages.

Complaint records are open for public review. However, during the investigation, files (other than the complaint itself) are open only to the parties involved in the dispute.

For more information