Introduction to employment discrimination under federal and Texas laws

Significant protections are given to employees with corresponding responsibilities imposed upon employers.

Federal and Texas civil rights laws provide protection for employees against unlawful discrimination and harassment in the workplace based on certain protected characteristics. These laws governing employment discrimination are complicated, include interaction between federal and state agencies, exhaustion of administrative remedies requirements and short filing deadlines.

Seek legal advice in discrimination matters

The bottom line is if you are a Texas job applicant or employee, whether an executive, manager, supervisor or employee at any other level in your company, who has experienced discrimination or harassment in hiring, termination, or with regard to any other terms or conditions of employment, it is important to speak with an employment attorney as soon as possible to understand and preserve your legal rights and to avoid missing any deadlines.

Likewise, if you are a Texas business owner, an experienced labor and employment lawyer can advise you about your responsibility to maintain a discrimination-free workplace. It is not enough to not discriminate; optics matter, and the failure to incorporate best practices can result in expensive employment litigation as quickly as an overtly discriminatory termination. In addition, legal counsel can provide guidance on how to respond to reports and complaints alleging discrimination or harassment, as well as defend against claims filed with a government agency or a lawsuit.

Protected classes

Most federal civil rights laws are enforced by the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, a government agency also known as the EEOC. Whether an employer is covered by federal law depends on the type of employer, the type of discrimination alleged, and how many employees the employer employs. In most situations, private employers are subject to these laws if they have at least 15 employees, but even calculating the number of employees can be complicated.

Discrimination or harassment based on the following characteristics is generally unlawful under federal law:

  • Race;
  • Color;
  • National origin;
  • Religion, including failing to make a reasonable accommodation for an employee's religious beliefs or practices;
  • Gender, which includes pregnancy;
  • Age, if at least 40 years old;
  • Disability, including failing to make a reasonable accommodation for a known disability; and
  • Genetic information.

It is also generally unlawful for an employer to retaliate against an employee who makes a complaint of discrimination, files an EEOC charge, or cooperates in another person's charge of discrimination.

Texas law protects essentially the same characteristics except for genetic information. The corresponding state agency is the Texas Workforce Commission - Civil Rights Division or TWC-CRD.

While there are defenses to the prohibited conduct described above, their application is not always clear. Experienced employment law counsel should be consulted as soon as possible after an allegation of discrimination is made to ensure such defenses are not waived and are applied properly.

The EEOC and the TWC-CRD have a work-sharing agreement, so a complaint filed with the EEOC is considered filed with TWC-CRD. In most cases, it is necessary to exhaust administrative remedies, meaning filing a claim with the agency first to allow it to investigate the allegation, and obtain the right to file a lawsuit.

This article provides only a broad introduction to a complicated area of law. For every rule, there can be exceptions, so legal advice should be sought about every individual situation.

The lawyers of Fiddler & Associates, P.C., in Houston represent employees in matters of employment discrimination and harassment against large companies and advise and represent small businesses in employment law compliance and in defense of such claims.