A tool federal courts have used to kick a case out of federal court and back into state courts - even if the case raises substantial issues of federal law. The idea is that the federal court refuses to hear a case that might interfere with or duplicate what is already going on in state court. Sometimes a broad reading of the Abstention Doctrine means a federal court may refuse to hear a claim because it overlaps with what is going on in a state court - even though the state court isn't going to rule on the federal issue, making it more difficult for individuals to assert their rights under federal law.
ADA (Americans with Disabilities Act)
A federal law passed in 1990 that prohibits discrimination against people with physical or mental disabilities in employment, public services, and public accommodations. Since 2000, state employees can no longer use this law to sue for backpay if they have been discriminated against by their state employer because of the Supreme Court's decision in University of Alabama v. Garrett (2000).
ADA Amendments Act
As a reaction to the Supreme Court's whittling away of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and, particularly, the definition of who is a "person with a disability" and therefore protected by the Act, Congress passed the ADA Amendments Act, which went into effect on January 1, 2009. What is most notable about the ADA Amendments Act is the preamble, which states Congress' intent in passing the law. It reads: "Congress intended the ADA to provide a clear and comprehensive national mandate for the elimination of discrimination against individuals with disabilities and provide broad coverage; and While Congress expected that the definition of disability under the ADA would be interpreted consistently with how courts had applied the definition of a handicapped individual under the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, that expectation has not been fulfilled; and specific statements that the Supreme Court holdings ... eliminated protection for many individuals that Congress intended to protect."
ADEA (Age Discrimination in Employment Act)
A federal law passed in 1967 prohibiting discrimination in employment based on age for people over 40. The Supreme Court's 1999 decision in Kimmel v. Florida Board of Regents shielded state employers from this law.
Alexander v. Sandoval (2001)
Martha Sandoval sued the state of Alabama because, as a state with an "English only" policy, it refused to give any driver's license tests in Spanish, thus discriminating against her on the basis of her national origin. The Supreme Court, in a 5-4 decision, decided that private individuals could only sue the state under Title VI if they could prove intentional discrimination, creating an extraordinarily difficult burden for challenging the law. After this case, if individuals who are discriminated against only have proof that a policy or practice has an unjustified disparate impact on the basis of race or ethnicity, they have no private right of action in federal court, so they can only try and persuade the federal government to take their case, something that rarely happens.
Ashcroft v. Iqbal (2009)
Ashcroft v. Iqbal was about the experience of Javid Iqbal, a Pakistani immigrant who was held after September 11th and treated as a terrorist, even though there was never any evidence or reason to suspect him of being a terrorist. Although the case raised a number of issues, it has become known as the Supreme Court decision that raised the bar for how much evidence a person needs to put forward in order to begin a lawsuit, also known as the pleading standard. Historically, the federal courts only required "notice pleading" - a low standard allowing people to bring cases in court so long as they put enough in their complaint so the defendant would have notice of what the lawsuit was about. In this case, the Supreme Court set a new standard, requiring that Iqbal and other plaintiffs plead facts that plausibly establish a claim for relief. This new burden is called the "plausibility standard" and may make it more difficult to bring challenges in federal court.
Brown v. Board of Education (1954)
One of the most significant court decisions in US history, this case dismantled the legal basis for racial segregation in schools and other public facilities. The Supreme Court declared that racial segregation in public education violated the 14th Amendment, which guarantees all people equal protection under the laws. The Brown decision saw the beginning of educational and social reform throughout the United States and beyond, and was a significant spark in the Civil Rights Movement.
Buckhannon Board and Care Home Inc. v. West Virginia Dept. of Health and Human Services (2000)
Federal law allows plaintiffs who win civil rights cases to get their attorneys fees paid by the other side. This provides an incentive for lawyers to represent people who are discriminated against, who might otherwise not be able to afford lawyers. In order for civil rights plaintiffs to get fees, or charge their legal costs to the losing side of a case, the plaintiff must be what is called a "prevailing party" - that is, the party that wins the case. Until Buckhannon, a civil rights plaintiff could ask for fees if the defendants made a voluntary change in the law the plaintiff was protesting. This meant the case could settle between the two parties rather than going to a trial in front of a judge. Before this decision, many plaintiffs settled cases because it saved resources and changed behavior, and because most cannot afford to bring a case all the way to trial. In Buckhannon, the Supreme Court, voting 5-4, changed the rule: now, in order to get the other side to pay attorneys fees, a civil rights plaintiff bringing a case under the Americans with Disabilities Act or the Fair Housing Act, for example, must "prevail" in front of a judge, and private settlement agreements between the parties are no longer good enough to get fees.
Civil Rights Act of 1964
This landmark federal civil rights law contains a number of sections (called "titles") prohibiting discrimination. The Act was passed to enforce the rights for which many people risked, or lost, their lives in the civil rights struggle of the 1950s and 60s. Title VI prohibits discrimination on the basis of race/color and national origin by public and private agencies that receive federal money. This part of the law no longer offers the protection it used to after Alexander v. Sandoval, a case in the Supreme Court in 2001. Title VII prohibits discrimination in employment on the basis of race, color, national origin, sex, or religion and applies to any employer with at least 15 employees.
Civil Rights Attorneys Fees Act
In the United States, each side of a lawsuit must pay its own legal fees. Legal cases are expensive to bring, and in civil rights law, the costs could keep many cases from ever being brought. Civil rights plaintiffs and attorneys do not often have large amounts of money, and these cases usually do not end with large amounts of money being won, because they are more about changing behavior. To make it more possible to bring civil rights cases, Congress passed the Civil Rights Attorneys Fees Act in 1976. This allows plaintiffs who win a federal civil rights suit to charge their legal fees to the losing side of the case. The Supreme Court's 5-4 decision in Buckhannon in 2000 limited when plaintiffs can get attorney's fees under the Act.
Congress can only pass a law if the U.S. Constitution has granted it the authority to do so . If Congress passes a law that is not within its powers, the Supreme Court can strike down the law. Article I Section 8 of the Constitution lays out many of the powers of Congress. One of the key provisions is the Commerce Clause, which gives Congress the power to pass laws that affect interstate commerce. This power has been used since the New Deal in the 1930's to pass laws regulating the workplace and later to strike down segregation in places such as motels, which draw guests from across state lines. In the 1990s, the Supreme Court began to change its interpretation of the Commerce Clause, striking down laws that are not strictly economic. This limits Congress's ability to pass civil rights laws. For example, this is one of the reasons that the Supreme Court struck down a portion of the Violence Against Women Act in U.S. v. Morrison (1999).
A Consent Decree is a court order that may end a lawsuit or at least resolve a portion of the suit. When both sides agree about how a court case should be resolved, they may enter into an agreement. A court can issue a decree and then monitor compliance with it to make sure that both sides follow through on the agreement.
Money that can be won by one side in a lawsuit to compensate for a loss or an injury.
The person in a lawsuit who the plaintiff is accusing of having done something illegal. In a civil suit, this is the person being sued.
This is a way of proving discrimination in court. To bring a case, the plaintiffs have to show that a certain group (categoried by race, ethnicity, gender, disability, age, for example) suffered harm more than others because of a policy or action, even if the policy seemed neutral. The plaintiffs also have to show that this disproportionate harm was also unjustified. In 2001 in Alexander v. Sandoval, the Supreme Court ruled 5-4 that the disparate impact standard could no longer be used to prove discrimination on the basis of race or national origin under Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. This decision has kept many people out of court, unable to enforce their civil rights.
Individual judges usually hear cases by themselves when parties bring a case. When their decisions are appealed, though, the argument is often heard by a panel of three or more judges. Dissents are written by the judges that do not agree with the majority of the judges writing the decision for the court in a certain case. The dissent does not have the same power of law as the majority opinion, but it is a statement of what a judge thinks about an issue.
This is a guarantee in our Constitution that keeps the government from unfairly or arbitrarily taking a persons' life, liberty, or property. This usually means that if the government wants to take any of these things from a person, there must first be notice and a fair trial or procedure. There are two Due Process clauses in the Constitution. One is in the 5th Amendment, which limits the federal government; the other is in the 14th Amendment and limits what states can do.
The Eleventh Amendment
The words of the Eleventh Amendment to the U.S. Constitution prohibit people in one state from suing a different state in federal court - for example, California residents from trying to sue the state of Texas. In recent years, however, the Supreme Court has re-interpreted the Eleventh Amendment as shielding states from lawsuits not only in federal court, but also in state court, and not only from suits filed by people in another state, but also by their own citizens. In controversial decisions, with votes of 5-4, the Supreme Court has elevated "state's rights," deciding that the Eleventh Amendment shields states from suits filed by state employees for workplace discrimination based on age (Kimmel) and disability (Garrett).
The Equal Protection Clause
After the Civil War, the Fourteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution was added to establish that all people born or naturalized in the United States have U.S. citizenship and to ensure that the federal government protects the rights of all its people. The Fourteenth Amendment contains the Equal Protection Clause, which requires that states treat all people equally. The language provides: "nor shall any state deny to any person the equal protection of the laws."
Fair Housing Act Amendment of 1988 (FHAA)
This federal law added to the Fair Housing Act of 1968, which prohibits discrimination in private and public housing based on race, color, religion, or national origin. The 1988 Amendments added "familial status" and "handicapped persons" to the list, made the law more enforceable, and increased the amount of damages a person could win in a discrimination lawsuit.
Fair Labor Standards Act
Passed in 1938, this Act established the minimum wage, banned certain child labor practices, and established a limit on the number of hours in the work week, guaranteeing time and a half for overtime for certain employees. The law only applied to certain industries but Congress has expanded its coverage over the years.
The Fairness Act
Introduced as a bill in both the House and Senate of the U.S. Congress in 2006, 2007 and 2008, the Fairness Act was intended to address some of the gaps in civil rights laws that were created by recent Supreme Court rulings, such as in Alexander v. Sandoval and Buckhannon. Had it passed, the Fairness Act would have allowed lawsuits by plaintiffs challenging discriminatory actions that have an unjustified disparate impact, and would have allowed for plaintiffs to recover attorney's fees in civil rights cases that settle.
The founding fathers used the term "federalism" to refer to the balance of power between the states and the federal government. "Federalists" were advocates of strong central government and supported ratification of the Constitution. They included James Madison, Alexander Hamilton and John Jay, as examples. More recently, in an effort to evoke the spirit of the founding fathers, a new organization that advocates for limited federal powers and greater states rights has named itself the Federalist Society for Law and Pubic Policy Studies. Ironically, perhaps, the Federalist Society uses the term today to advocate for a weaker federal government and, thus, weaker federal civil rights laws.
The Fourteenth Amendment
The Fourteenth Amendment was added to the Constitution after the Civil War as a way to protect civil rights - and particularly to protect the rights of the newly freed slaves -- and to make sure they received federal and state protection from discrimination. Section 5 of the 14th Amendment grants Congress the power to make these guarantees enforceable.
Gross v. FBL Financial Services, Inc. (2009)
Jack Gross brought a lawsuit claiming that his employer had demoted him because of his age in violation of the Age Discrimination in Employment Act (ADEA). The jury ruled in his favor, finding that age was a motivating factor - though perhaps not the only factor - in his demotion. This is called a "mixed motive" case. In a 5-4 decision, with Justice Thomas writing for the majority, the Supreme Court held that Jack Gross and other people challenging age discrimination have to prove that age was the "but for" cause, the one motivating factor, for the employment decision. This makes things exceedingly difficult for plaintiffs, especially in employment situations, where employers may have several motivations for demoting or terminating employees.
A court's decision in a case is sometimes called the holding. The holding refers to the part of the court's ruling to which a majority of the court agree, and this then becomes the law. The judges or justices who do not agree with the holding of a case may write a separate dissent.
Horne v. Flores (2009)
Horne v. Flores dealt with when and on what grounds states or other defendants should be released from their legal obligations. In this case, a federal court had entered a series of orders requiring that the state of Arizona adequately fund instruction for English language learners as mandated by the Equal Educational Opportunities Act. The state did not appeal but neither did it adequately fund the instructional programs. When the Flores family and others went back to court asking that the state finally fund the programs, political leaders in the state asked the court to relieve them of responsibility. Normally, defendants have to comply with court orders. In 2009, though, the Supreme Court ruled 5-4 that the state might be able to get out of its obligation if its budget crisis or other new situations are a significant change making enforcement of the court order "detrimental to the public interest."
Courts have interpreted some anti-discrimination laws to require that a person or agency purposefully - or "intentionally" -- treated people differently on the basis of race, gender, age or some other illegitimate basis. This is a difficult standard to meet because it's hard to find evidence of what another person or company intended. It also fails to address acts that may be based on unconscious bias or actions that have an unjustified disproportionate impact on the basis of race, gender, age or other basis -- for example, the use of an invalid test for hiring or job promotion that screens out women or members of another group and doesn't measure the qualifications of applicants for the job.
An order by a court that requires one side in a lawsuit to do something or keeps them from doing something. For example, a court might enter an injunction against a state agency that keeps them from enacting a regulation that would discriminate against people because of their race.
Kimmel v. Florida Board of Regents (1999)
The Supreme Court decided 5-4 that even though the people who brought suit might be able to show that they were denied employment by the state of Florida just because of their age, their cases would not be allowed to go forward because Congress didn't have the authority to pass a law allowing people to sue states for age discrimination. The Court interpreted the Eleventh Amendment of the Constitution as shielding states from suits under the Age Discrimination in Employment Act (ADEA).
Ledbetter v. Goodyear Tire & Rubber Co (2006) & The Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act of 2009
For almost 20 years, Lilly Ledbetter worked hard for Goodyear. But one day she received an anonymous letter saying she had received consistently and significantly less pay than her male co-workers doing the same job. Ledbetter was horrified, and took her case to court. She won in a trial by jury. The jury said that Goodyear had to make up for the unfair treatment and that the company violated federal civil rights laws that prohibit employment discrimination based on a person's gender. Ledbetter was awarded back pay and damages. In 1997 Goodyear appealed, and the case went all the way up to the Supreme Court.
In May 2006, the Court ruled against Ledbetter. It said she couldn't sue because she hadn't filed a complaint within 180 days of Goodyear's decision to pay her less than the men -- even though she had no way of knowing the company was paying her less until she got the anonymous tip years later.
At the Supreme Court level, Ms. Ledbetter lost 5-4, by one justice's vote. In early 2009, however, President Obama signed the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act into law, reversing the Court decision that allowed companies to discriminate against workers based on gender.
Enacted in 1965, the Medicaid Act describes which services a state must provide to Medicaid recipients in exchange for the state receiving federal money to help fund the state's Medicaid program. Medicaid is a federal program run in partnership with the states, and the Act establishes standards for access, quality and efficiency that states are supposed to meet.
National Labor Relations Act
This 1935 law, more popularly known as the NLRA or the Wagner Act, granted workers the right to organize and form unions, and created the National Labor Relations Act. In 1947 the Taft-Hartley Act severely weakened the NLRA.
Parents Involved in Community Schools (PICS) v. Seattle School District and Meredith v. Jefferson County Board of Education
In 2007, the Supreme Court heard arguments in two cases involving school districts in Seattle, WA and Louisville, KY that had been sued for enacting policies aimed at achieving racial diversity in local schools. In spite of persisting racial disparities in education, a divided Court stated that using race as a determining factor in assigning individual children to particular schools violated the equal protection clause of the 14th Amendment. Even the majority was divided, however, on what race conscious efforts are constitutional, with Justice Kennedy joining the 5-4 majority to strike down the student assignment plans in Seattle and Louisville but then writing a separate opinion to make clear that schools can use other race conscious means to achieve diversity.
When bringing a lawsuit, there is established precedent regarding how much information the plaintiffs have to provide to get their case into court. In two recent decisions, Bell Atlantic Corp. v. Twombly and Ashcroft v. Iqbal, the Supreme Court has revised this 'pleading standard' by implying that, beyond merely showing that an injustice is possible, plaintiffs need to demonstrate that wrongdoing was plausible or likely.
The person or group that brings a lawsuit.
Private Right of Action
The right of an individual to bring a case into court. Not all laws allow for a private right of action. Instead, a person would need the government to bring a case for them (something that rarely happens in civil rights cases). The Supreme Court's Sandoval decision took away a private right of action to enforce claims that actions have a disparate impact in violation of Title VI (but not claims where the claim is intentional discrimination).
A rule made by a government agency that provides definitions and standards for or interprets a law made by Congress. Regulations have the weight of law.
The Rehabilitation Act of 1973 prohibits discrimination on the basis of disability in programs conducted by federal agencies, in programs receiving federal funds (both public and private), in federal employment, and in the employment practices of federal contractors. The Rehabilitation Act and the ADA together protect the rights of people with disabilities in the United States, and the standards for determining employment discrimination under the Rehabilitation Act are the same as those used in Americans with Disabilities Act.
Rollback of Civil Rights
A phrase that refers to decisions in the federal courts since the 1980's that have weakened protection of our rights. Recent court rulings have limited Congress's power to pass laws that protect civil rights, and made it more difficult for individuals to enforce the laws we already have. Many people are unaware of the problem because of the legal jargon used in these decisions.
Section 5 of the 14th Amendment
The part of the Constitution that gives Congress the power to enforce the 14th Amendment, including the Due Process Clause and the Equal Protection Clause, through passing civil rights laws and making it possible for people to sue their state to enforce these laws. Both University of Alabama v. Garrett and United States v. Morrison limit Congress' power under Section 5, making it more difficult for Congress to pass civil rights laws and for people to sue to enforce them.
A federal law that creates a right for individuals to bring a lawsuit when their rights were violated by a state. The full name of the law is volume 42 of the United States Code section 1983 (42 U.S.C. 1983).
Seminole Tribe of Florida v. Florida (1996)
This is one of a number of cases in the 1990s and more recent years in which the Supreme Court has limited Congress's authority to pass laws. In a 5-4 decision, the Supreme Court held that the Seminole Tribe could not sue the state of Florida for violations of a federal law that required that the state engage in good faith negotiations with the Tribe. More broadly, though, the case stands for the principle that Congress can't pass a law allowing individuals to sue states for damages if it is legislating under its "Commerce Clause" power. Moreover, Congress can't pass a law allowing suits against states for damages if it is legislating under its "Spending Clause" power unless the state consents -- that is, it agreed to be open to suit as a condition of taking federal funds.
An agreement made between both sides in a lawsuit that ends the suit and is legally binding. A court generally does not monitor a settlement agreement, and this makes it different from a consent decree.
The idea that the government, either state or federal, cannot be sued. The 11th Amendment is an example of this kind of shield; it offers state governments protection from some federal lawsuits. For decades before the Supreme Court began the rollback of civil rights, people could sue states for violations of federal civil rights laws. Recently, the Supreme Court has changed the law by deciding that states have sovereign immunity from more and more types of lawsuits, making it difficult for people to enforce their rights when they are violated by states.
States' rights suggest that states have authority that the federal government can't invade. Throughout the course of U.S. history, advocates for state's rights have argued that states are "sovereign" and that the power of the federal government, including Congress and the federal courts, should be limited. Opponents of civil rights in the 1960's used state's rights to support their arguments and to resist the enforcement of civil rights laws. Today, state's rights continues to be supported by a strong movement, including groups like the Federalist Society for Law and Public Policy Studies.
State waivers are one of the ways a state can lose its immunity from suit, making it possible for people to sue their state for discrimination. Because the Supreme Court has recently been giving states more and more immunity from lawsuits, some states that value civil rights have passed legislation giving up this immunity, allowing people to sue them in federal court for damages. This is called a state waiver. Minnesota, North Carolina and Illinois all passed state waivers, while many more states have considered passing similar laws to protect their citizens from discrimination.
A law passed by Congress or a state legislature.
South Camden Citizens in Action v. New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection (2001)
In 2001, in South Camden, N.J., the federal court suspended a permit for a cement factory because of the unfair impact that this plant would have on its neighbors. South Camden already housed the region's largest trash incinerator, a power plant, the county sewage treatment plant, and a radioactive waste site. The area also has one of the highest cancer rates in the nation. The court said that the people who lived around the factory were made to bear more than their fair share of the problems of pollution, and were being discriminated against because of their race. The ruling, though, was overturned after the Supreme Court's decisions in Alexander v. Sandoval and Gonzaga v. Doe. The result of these decisions was that the community could demonstrate that the siting of the cement plant violated civil rights laws, but they could no longer enforce those laws.
The highest court in the United States. It has the power to interpret the Constitution and laws passed by Congress. There are 9 justices on the Court. The justices are: Chief Justice John Roberts, Samuel Alito, Ruth Bader-Ginsberg, Stephen Breyer, Anthony Kennedy, Antonin Scalia, Sonia Sotomayor, John Paul Stevens, and Clarence Thomas. Decisions are made when five justices must agree with each other, forming a majority.
Title VI of the Civil Rights Act
Prohibits recipients of federal funding (both private and public) from discriminating on the basis of race, color, or national origin.
Title IX of the Civil Rights Act
Prohibits discrimination on the basis of sex in any education program or activity receiving federal financial assistance, with a number of exceptions.
United States v. Morrison (1999)
In a 5-4 decision, the Supreme Court struck down portions of the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA), saying Congress did not have the power to pass the provisions in the first place. A woman raped by two football players at Virginia Tech University while she was a student there brought the case. The school found one of the players guilty and suspended him, but later overturned the decision, did not inform the woman, and sent the man back to school. Upon finding this out, the woman dropped out and tried to sue the school in federal court under VAWA. Despite volumes of congressional evidence showing violence keeps women from participating in the economy, the Supreme Court held Congress did not have the power to pass this law under the Commerce Clause or the 14th Amendment. This reasoning in this case limits Congress' ability to enact civil rights laws.
University of Alabama v. Garrett (2000)
The Supreme Court, in a 5-4 decision, held that state employees could not sue their state employer for damages in federal court if they were discriminated against because of a disability. In this case, Patricia Garrett was demoted from her job as a nurse at a state hospital because she developed breast cancer and her boss did not want somebody who "looked sick" being around patients. She sued the state under the ADA. The court used the Eleventh Amendment to justify its decision, holding that the state was immune from suit.
Violence Against Women Act
Often referred to as VAWA, this law was enacted in 1994 to provide money to state efforts to prevent violence against women. The act also included a provision that allowed victims of violence to sue their attackers in federal court. The decision in United States v. Morrison declared this portion of the law unconstitutional. VAWA was reauthorized in 2000, after the United States v. Morrison decision, without this provision.