Learn which allegations have viable claims.

Workplace discrimination essentially occurs when an individual suffers unfair treatment by an employer because of the individual’s membership in a “protected class,” the most classic examples of which being race, national origin, sex, and religion.  While many individuals understandably feel they are mistreated at work, many fewer actually have legally viable claims for which a court will grant relief.  The following is a brief overview of the pertinent workplace discrimination law in Tennessee and the steps for making a claim.

Workplace discrimination suits in Tennessee are generally governed by two sets of law:

  1. The Tennessee Human Rights Act; and
  2. The Tennessee Disability Act

The Tennessee Human Rights Act

The Tennessee Human Rights Act (“THRA”), specifically T.C.A. § 4-21-401, provides in pertinent part:

  1. It is discriminatory practice for an employer to:
    1. Fail or refuse to hire or discharge any person or otherwise discriminate against an individual with respect to compensation, terms, conditions or privileges of employment because of such individual’s race, creed, color, religion, sex, age, or national origin; -or-
    2. Limit, segregate or classify an employee or applicants for employment in any way that would deprive or tend to deprive an individual of employment opportunities or otherwise adversely affect the status of an employee, because of race, creed, color, religion, sex, age, or national origin.

Put simply, the THRA prohibits employers from depriving, or failing to provide employees with an employment benefit they are otherwise entitled to on the basis of one of the classifications listed.  This is the reason so many allegations of workplace discrimination are ultimately not viable.  It is insufficient for an individual to merely establish that he or she is a member of a protected group and was treated poorly.  The individual claiming workplace discrimination must establish with evidence that the discrimination was because of said group membership, which can be very difficult to establish. Visit the TN.gov website to learn more.

The Tennessee Disability Act

The Tennessee Disability Act (“TDA”), specifically T.C.A. § 8-50-103(b), provides in pertinent part:

There shall be no discrimination in the hiring, firing and other terms and conditions of employment of the state of Tennessee or any department, agency, institution, or political subdivision of the state, or of any private employer, against any applicant for employment based solely upon any physical, mental or visual disability of the applicant, unless such disability to some degree prevents the applicant from performing the duties required by the employment sought or impairs the performance of the work involved…

To succeed on a claim under the TDA, the claimant must:

  1. Establish qualification as an individual with a disability;
  2. Show the ability to perform the essential functions of the job with or without reasonable accommodation; and
  3. Show subjection to an adverse employment action on the basis of a protected disability.

Boiled down, the TDA prohibits state and local governments and certain private employers (those with eight or more employees) from firing, refusing to hire, or otherwise discriminating against a disabled employee/applicant because of the disability, when the job is one that the disabled employee/applicant iscapable of performing .  For example, an individual with Ageusia (“the inability to taste”) likely has a viable claim when he is passed over for a job as an attorney on the basis of his condition.  However, the same individual likely will not have a valid claim when passed over for a job as a wine taster.

Filing a discrimination claim in Tennessee

Employment discrimination claims are typically filed with the Tennessee Human Rights Commission (“THRC”), a state administrative agency, or the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (“EEOC”), a federal administrative agency.  While the two departments have different deadlines and requirements, they do utilize what is called a “work sharing agreement,” which essentially means an individual can simultaneously file with both agencies by simply designating his desire to do so.

The Tennessee Human Rights Commission

  • Tennessee’s anti-discrimination law covers smaller employers.  Specifically, those with eight (8) to fourteen (14) employees.
  • To preserve a claim under state law, an individual must file with the THRC within 180 days of the date the discrimination took place.

The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission

  • This federal agency covers larger entities; those with greater than fifteen employees.
  • To preserve a claim under federal law, an individual must file with the EEOC within 300 days of the discrimination.

Once a claim is filed, the respective agency(ies) will initiate an investigation, which can include reviewing documents, evidence, calling witnesses, and calling for a mediation between the employer and claimant-employee.  The length of the investigation is determined by many factors and it is impossible to provide a general time frame.

Going to Court

If the case ultimately cannot be decided by either administrative agency, the individual might wish to pursue the action in court.  Federal actions cannot be filed without first having gone through the EEOC and the EEOC having certified that the administrative remedy has been “exhausted.”  A claim under state law does not require exhaustion of administrative remedies.

If the individual’s remedies through the EEOC have been exhausted, the EEOC issues a document known as “Dismissal and Notice of Rights” or “Notice of Right to Sue” forms, which allows the federal claim to be filed.  A lawsuit based on a federal discrimination claim must be filed in federal or state court within 90 days of the date the notice is received.  A lawsuit based on a state discrimination claim need only be filed within one year of the date the discrimination took place.

If you believe you have been wrongfully discriminated against and wish to pursue either a federal or state claim, please contact one of the experienced attorneys at  Batson Nolan PLC to discuss your case and your options going forward. If you have more legal questions, contact us to be connected with the right attorney for all your legal needs.