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Ohio employers must comply with both state and federal workplace discrimination laws. Although state and federal laws are very similar to each other, there are some significant differences. As an Ohio employee, it’s important to know your rights under Ohio law and to stay current on the law as it evolves and changes.
Ohio state law prohibits workplace discrimination under the Ohio Fair Employment Practices Act (FEPA). FEPA has been amended several times since its original passage in 1959 as the Ohio Civil Rights Act. The most recent revision went into effect on April 12, 2021. Although other state and local laws offer additional safeguards against discrimination, FEPA provides the most comprehensive protection.
The most significant federal workplace discrimination law is Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (“Title Vll”).
Under the Ohio FEPA, it’s illegal to subject employees to discrimination based on the following:
- national origin,
- gender (including pregnancy, childbirth, and related medical conditions),
- age (40 and older),
- citizenship status,
- genetic information,
- military status, and
- caring for a close family member while in the armed service.
These categories are called “protected classes.”
Significant omissions in the Ohio law include sexual orientation and gender identity, both of which are protected classes under Title Vll. It is unclear at present whether you can win a claim for discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity under Ohio law–you might be able to characterize such a claim as gender discrimination.
The last two protected classes, which address military service, do not exist as protected classes in federal workplace discrimination law.
How Protected Classes Apply to Employment Decisions
Theoretically, since everyone is a member of a protected class (everyone has a gender, for example), workplace discrimination laws can be applied to protect anyone.
The general rule is that your employer cannot take adverse action against you – by firing you, refusing to hire you, refusing to promote you, tolerating harassment against you, etc. – on the basis of your membership in a protected class, unless your membership prevents you from being able to do your job.
A few examples can illustrate this concept:
- An employer cannot refuse to hire you as an accountant simply because you are Hindu.
- A church can refuse to hire you as pastor of a Christian church if you are a Hindu.
- Your employer cannot refuse to grant you a tenured professorship because you are Black.
- A studio can refuse to cast you as a white historical character because you are a Black actor.
- An employer cannot refuse to hire you as a landscape architect because you hold a “green card” but not US citizenship.
- An employer can (and must) refuse to hire you as a landscape architect if you are an undocumented immigrant(since you woud have no right to work in the United States).
Often, it is not entirely clear whether an employment decision is discriminatory. Seek legal advice if you are unsure if you have a claim.
Enforcing Your Claim
If you believe your employer has unlawfully discriminated against you within the past two years, you can begin a state claims procedure by filing a formal claim with the Ohio Civil Rights Commission (OCRC). (You may also elect to file your claim with the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (“EEOC”) if your company has at least 15 employees. The EEOC and state agencies have a work-sharing agreement, and cooperate in processing discrimination claims.) The OCRC has one year to complete its investigation and decide whether it will act on your complaint.
If the OCRC upholds your claim, it may order your employer to modify any practices that it finds discriminatory, and to order your employer to pay you money damages. Only if the OCRC elects not to pursue a claim will you have the right to file a lawsuit in court. The court can award greater damages than the OCRC.
Two main types of remedies apply to Ohio workplace discrimination law: injunctive relief, where the court orders the employer to do or refrain from doing something; and monetary relief, where the court orders the employer to pay you money damages.
More specifically, the OCRC and the Ohio courts have the right to order the employer to:
- Undo whatever act it performed that was found to be discriminatory–reinstate or even promote you, hire you, etc. The facts of the case determine the content of the court order.
- Pay you back pay if, for example, your employer unjustly fired you.
- Pay “front pay” beginning on a specified date, as an alternative to reinstating you.
- Offer you retroactive seniority and/or benefits.
- Pay compensatory damages for the losses you suffered as an indirect result of the illegal discrimination (emotional distress, for example, or child care expenses if you lost the right to use company day care facilities, etc.).
- Pay attorney’s fees.
- Pay punitive damages (these are rarely awarded, however).
The Ohio legislature has placed a limitation on “non-economic” damages, which are intangible damages such as emotional distress. The cap amounts to the greater of $250,000 or three times the economic damages up to $350,000.
Which Employers are Covered by the Ohio Fair Employment Practices Act?
If your company has at least four employees (including you), it is subject to the Ohio workplace discrimination law. Note that all employers, regardless of the number of employees, must pay men and women equally for doing substantially equal work under the federal Equal Pay Act.
Since about two-thirds of all discrimination claims that make it to court are decided in favor of the employee, your employer may be receptive to a private settlement if your claim is reasonably strong. Although the average cost of an out-of-court settlement is $40,000 or more, seven-figure settlements are not at all uncommon in discrimination cases.
Looking to the Future: The Ohio Fairness Act and LGBT Workplace Discrimination
The Ohio Fairness Act is a bill making its way through the Ohio state legislature. If it is passed, it would clearly prohibit workplace discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity or expression. Like the Ohio FEPA, it would apply to employers with 4 or more employees. This bill would also ban discrimination in housing and public accommodations.
The Ohio Fairness Act currently enjoys bipartisan support in the state legislature. Many people expect it to become law at some point in 2021.