Public sector employees have two avenues for filing a civil rights claim. Not only do they have Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, but they can also sue under 42 U.S.C. §1983. Section 1983 helps enforce laws under the 14th Amendment, which applies to unequal treatment by the government. Because public-sector employees work for the government, they are entitled to file claims for unequal treatment against officials when the official in charge acts unlawfully. In contrast, Title VII only allows for claims against the organization.
Teacher Carlos Vega worked for the Hempstead Union Free School District in New York. Beginning in 2008, when a new principal came on board, he noticed he was being treated less favorably. He had classes with a larger percentage of Spanish-speaking students, which created more translation work. He wasn’t able to use his customary classroom, and had to make due with a room in a noisy area with no blackboards. He was assigned another classroom with a “University of Puerto Rico” banner over the door. Finally, he was transferred to another school against his wishes when his results for student achievement were higher than most other teachers’.
He finally complained about the treatment. The following year, he received his first negative review after receiving glowing reviews for many years. He sued. Vega v. Hempstead Union Free Sch. Dist. (2nd Cir. 2015). The trial court ruled that Vega couldn’t proceed in an action against the principal–the official in this case–because he was suing for retaliation instead of discrimination.
The Second Circuit Court of Appeals overturned the lower court’s ruling and seemed to apologize for creating confusion on how the law was to be interpreted. In the final analysis, section 1983 claims can be alleged when there is either discrimination or retaliatory treatment based on discrimination. And, as the court pointed out, this is in line with an earlier Supreme Court ruling. It’s also true that the burden of proof to state a claim is easier for plaintiffs. Under Title VII, there must be a prima facie case of discrimination, and under Section 1983, there is only the minimal burden of plausibly alleging facts that provide some support of discriminatory intent, according to the court.
While Title VII is often at the forefront of the minds of public-sector HR personnel, it is important to remember Section 1983, particularly in light of its burden of proof.