Wrongfully Terminated Due to Race, Color, and National Origin in New Jersey

Employees may not be fired based on their racial or ethnic backgrounds.

Did your New Jersey employer fire you because of your race, skin color, or national origin? If so, you may have grounds to sue for wrongful termination. Below, we explain the legal prohibitions against workplace discrimination, including steps to take if you believe you were fired for discriminatory reasons.

Discrimination Based on Race, Color, and National Origin

Federal law prohibits employers from discriminating against employees based on race or color. It also prohibits discrimination based on national origin, including ethnicity, country of origin, language, or accent. New Jersey’s Law Against Discrimination (LAD) also prohibits these types of workplace discrimination.

National Origin Discrimination

You may not be fired because of your surname, accent, language preference, ethnicity, or country of origin. These are all forms of national origin discrimination, illegal under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which applies to all private employers with at least 15 employees. An employer may not, for example, target Iranian or Afghani employees for layoff. The New Jersey LAD prohibits national origin discrimination as well as discrimination based on nationality (citizenship or another legal relationship with a particular country).

Because speaking English clearly and well is a job requirement for many positions, special rules apply to language fluency and accent . An employee may not be fired just because he or she speaks with an accent or is fluent in languages other than English. However, an employer may require an employee to speak English fluently and clearly, if required for the job (for example, a customer service job).

An English-only rule, which requires employees to speak only English at the workplace, is allowed in certain situations. In general, the employer must have a legitimate business reason for the rule and it must be narrowly drawn to address the company's needs. For example, requiring employees to speak English while assisting English-speaking customers is likely legal; prohibiting employees from speaking other languages during breaks is likely not.

Race Discrimination

Employment discrimination based on race has been prohibited since the end of the Civil War, when the Reconstruction-era Congress passed the Civil Rights Act of 1866. This law—called “Section 1981”—extended a number of rights to newly freed slaves, including the right to enter into contracts and enforce them. Since then, this provision has been interpreted to ban workplace discrimination and harassment against employees of all races. Section 1981 applies to all employers, no matter how small.

Title VII also prohibits workplace race discrimination and harassment. Title VII is more limited than Section 1981 in a few ways, including how much an employee can recover in damages (as explained below). The New Jersey LAD also prohibits race discrimination. Like Section 1981, it applies to all employers, even those with only one employee.

Under all of these laws, it is illegal for employers to fire employees or treat them differently in any way because of their race. It is also illegal for employers to adopt policies that appear to be neutral, but have a disproportionate effect on employees of a particular race. For example, a blanket policy of firing any employee who is arrested might be discriminatory, because African American and Latino men are arrested at disproportionately high rates in our country.

Harassment is a form of discrimination covered by these laws. You may not be fired for complaining about, or refusing to put up with, racial harassment. Legally, race harassment is defined as offensive and unwelcome conduct that you must endure to keep your job or that is so severe or pervasive that it affects the terms and conditions of your job. Illegal harassment includes racist jokes and epithets, racist cartoons or rants, and acting in ways that show hostility to certain racial groups (such as hanging a noose in an African American employee’s cubicle).

Color Discrimination

Discrimination based on skin color is also illegal under Title VII and the New Jersey LAD. It is illegal for an employer to treat employees with darker skin worse than employees with lighter skin. Although color discrimination sometimes overlaps completely with race discrimination, it can also take place among people of the same race (for example, treating light-skinned African Americans better than dark-skinned African Americans).

What to Do If Your Termination Was Illegal

If you believe you were fired because of your race, color, or national origin, your first step should be consulting with an employment lawyer. Below, we explain how a lawyer can help you, how to file a charge of discrimination with a government agency, and what damages are available if you win a lawsuit.

Meet With a Lawyer

Before you can decide whether and how to challenge your termination, you should talk to an experienced employment lawyer. A lawyer can evaluate the facts, assess your claims, describe your options, and calculate how much you might receive in damages. A lawyer can try to reach a settlement with your employer, file charges with government agencies, and/or file a lawsuit on your behalf. (Learn how to select a lawyer in Finding a Lawyer for Your Wrongful Termination Case.)

If you’re worried about how you will pay a lawyer, you should know that lawyers are often willing to take discrimination cases on a contingency fee basis. This means that the lawyer is paid only if you win, by taking a percentage of the money you are awarded by the court. (Learn more about attorney fee arrangements in What Will It Cost to Hire a Lawyer for Your Wrongful Termination Case?) Some laws, including Title VII, also allow an employee to collect attorneys' fees from the employer if the employee wins the lawsuit.

Filing a Discrimination Charge

If you want to file a lawsuit against your employer for race, national origin, or color discrimination under Title VII, you’ll need to file a charge of discrimination with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), the agency that interprets and enforces federal workplace discrimination laws. (For violations of Section 1981, you can go straight to court without filing a charge of discrimination.) You may—but are not required to—file a charge with the New Jersey Division on Civil Rights (DCR) for violations of the New Jersey LAD. Depending on your claims, you must file within 180 days or 300 days of your termination.

If you want to file a lawsuit right away, you can ask the EEOC to issue you a right-to-sue letter: a document confirming that you have met your obligation to file a charge with the agency. Don’t take this step until you are ready to proceed, however. Once the EEOC issues the letter, you have only 90 days to file a lawsuit based on your Title VII claims.

You have two years after you were fired to file a lawsuit under the New Jersey LAD.

What Damages Are Available?

If you win your lawsuit, you can ask the court to order your employer to give you your job back. However, this remedy, called reinstatement, isn’t very common. Often, there’s just too much hostility between the former employee and employer to make this work.

It's more common to ask for money damages to compensate you for the harm done by your employer’s actions. Depending on the facts of your case, these damages might include:

  • back pay, lost benefits, and out-of-pocket losses you suffered as a result of being wrongfully fired
  • front pay, if reinstatement isn’t an option and you won't be able to find a new job for some time into the future
  • court costs and attorneys' fees
  • damages for emotional distress (called "pain and suffering"), and
  • punitive damages, intended to punish your employer for breaking the law (these damages are only awarded in special circumstances, where the employer acted intentionally or in a particularly egregious way).

While federal law does not place a cap on lost wages, it does impose caps on how much you can be awarded for pain and suffering, out-of-pocket losses (such as the costs of looking for a new job), and punitive damages. Depending on the size of your employer, the maximum combined award for these types of damages ranges from $50,000 to $300,000.

Under the New Jersey Law Against Discrimination, an employee can be awarded damages for pain and suffering and punitive damages. Unlike federal law, New Jersey does not cap the damages that can be awarded in these categories. Section 1981 also allows awards for emotional distress and punitive damages, without limit.

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