Ohio Workplace Discrimination Laws

Doug Mann

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Table of Contents
  1. Statutory Basis
  2. Protected Classes
  3. Enforcing Your Claim
  4. Remedies
  5. Which Employers are Covered by Ohio Workplace Discrimination Law?
  6. Out-of-Court Settlements
  7. Looking to the Future: The Ohio Fairness Act and LGBT Workplace Discrimination

Ohio employers must comply with both state and federal workplace discrimination laws. Although state and federal laws are mostly co-extensive (they are very similar to each other), certain significant differences do exist. As an Ohio employee, you are going to need to know your rights under Ohio law, and you are going to need to stay current on the law as it evolves and changes.

Statutory Basis

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 protections, FEPA offers the most comprehensive protection.  

Protected Classes

Ohio workplace discrimination law defines 11 “protected classes”:

  • race,
  • color,
  • national origin,
  • religion,
  • gender (including pregnancy, childbirth, and related medical conditions),
  • disability,
  • age (40 and older),
  • citizenship status,
  • genetic information,
  • military status, and
  • caring for a close family member while in the armed service.

Significant omissions include sexual orientation and gender identity, both of which are protected classes under federal law. 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 (concerning 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.

Examples

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 (in a dramatization of the life of John F. Kennedy, for example) 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).

None of the foregoing examples is 100% “cut and dried”–they can be litigated in court and lawyers can argue both sides. Seek legal advice if you are unsure of what you should do.

Enforcing Your Claim

You begin the claims procedure by filing a formal discrimination claim with the Ohio Civil Rights Commission (OCRC). 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 is entitled to 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 gain the right to file a lawsuit in court (this is a recent restriction). If the lawsuit makes it to court, however, the court can award greater damages than the OCRC can.

Remedies

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 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).

Keep in mind that the Ohio legislature has placed a limitation on “non-economic” damages (intangible damages such as emotional distress, etc.). The cap amounts to the greater of $250,000 or three times the economic damages up to $350,000.

Which Employers are Covered by Ohio Workplace Discrimination Law?

If your company has at least four employees (including you) then it is subject to Ohio workplace discrimination law. Although smaller employers are not free to discriminate as they please, companies with four or more employees are subject to the main force of Ohio’s workplace discrimination laws.

Since about two-thirds of all discrimination claims that make it to court are decided in favor of the employee, you can expect your employer to be open-minded about reaching 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 current workplace discrimination law, 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.

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