Understanding the Civil Rights Act of 1991

Daisy Rogozinsky
January 18, 2023

After the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Civil Rights Act of 1991 is one of the most comprehensive pieces of civil rights legislation ever passed by the U.S. Congress. This Act is key in offering several classes of employees protection against discriminatory employment practices. Read on to learn more about the Civil Rights Act of 1991, including what it is, its purpose, and the amendments it made to the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

What Is the Civil Rights Act of 1991? 

The Civil Right Act of 1991 was a United States federal law passed in response to several Supreme Court decisions that reduced employees’ rights to sue their employers for discrimination. The 1991 Act restored this right to employees and added additional ways for employees to sue their employers for discrimination. 

Among other things, the Civil Rights Act of 1991 did the following.

  • Made changes to some substantive and procedural employment discrimination rights
  • Gave employees the option of recovering damages for emotional distress
  • Allowed employees to choose jury trials in discrimination lawsuits
  • Added more protected classes

The Purpose of the Civil Rights Act of 1991

The Civil Right Act of 1991 states its purpose as “to amend the Civil Rights Act of 1964 to strengthen and improve Federal civil rights laws, to provide for damages in cases of intentional employment discrimination, to clarify provisions regarding disparate impact actions, and for other purposes.” 

In practice, this included provisions that made the Civil Rights Act of 1964 more inclusive and expanded possibilities for damages in employment discrimination cases. The Act also provided safeguards and resolutions to minorities who experience subtler workplace discrimination. 

What the Civil Rights Act of 1991 Responded To

There are several Supreme Court decisions from the 1980s that fueled the creation of the Civil Rights Act of 1991. These include:

  • Price Waterhouse v. Hopkins - In this case, an employer avoided liability for not promoting a woman due to her sex by claiming that they would have made the same decision regardless of sex. In response, the Civil Rights Act of 1991 made any reliance on discriminatory reasoning illegal.
  • Patterson v. McLean Credit Union - In this case, the Court determined that a Black woman’s claim for racial harassment was not actionable because it did not relate to making and enforcing private contracts. In response, the Civil Rights Act of 1991 broadened the definition of the phrase “make and enforce contracts.”
  • Lorance v. AT&T Technologies, Inc. - This case, in which women employees claimed their employer had adopted a seniority system that primarily benefitted men, was not admitted to trial because it was not filed within the required period after the alleged unlawful employment practice occurred. In response, the Civil Rights Act of 1991 expanded employees’ rights to challenge discriminatory seniority systems.
  • Wards Cove Packing Co., Inc. v. Atonio - In this case, a group of nonwhite cannery workers alleging discriminatory hiring practices lost their case and were told “produce evidence of a legitimate business justification” for the hiring practices that created the disparity. In response, the Civil Rights Act of 1991 requires employers to show that an employment practice is justified by “business necessity.”
  • Martin v. Wilks - In this case, white firefighters challenged a consent decree aiming to hire and promote Black Firefighters. In response, the Civil Rights Act of 1991 prevents hindering affirmative action.

Content of the Civil Rights Act of 1991

In detail, the Civil Rights Act of 1991 is responsible for the following laws, among others.

  • Outreach and education - The EEOC must engage in outreach and education for people who have historically been the victims of employment discrimination and have been underserved by the EEOC.
  • Protection of U.S. workers abroad - U.S. citizens who work abroad can file employment discrimination complaints against their employers.
  • Extension of protected classes - The Civil Rights Act of 1991 added congressional employees and other instrumentalities of Congress as a protected class.
  • Damages - Employees can recover both compensatory and punitive damages in employment discrimination claims. Plaintiffs can recover damages for pain and suffering and other non-economic losses, as well as future financial and nonfinancial losses caused by the discrimination.
  • Right to a jury trial - Plaintiffs in employment discrimination cases can ask for a jury trial.
  • Legal fees - The winning party in an employment discrimination lawsuit can recover legal fees, including attorney’s fees and expert witness fees.
  • Challenging seniority systems - Employees have the right to challenge seniority systems adopted for discriminatory purposes.
  • Creation of the Technical Assistance Training Institute - The Technical Assistance Training Institute offers technical assistance and training to employers about the regulations and laws that the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) enforces.
  • Statute of limitations for age discrimination cases - The Civil Rights Act of 1991 made the statute of limitations for cases related to the Age Discrimination in Employment Act of 1967 (ADEA) the same as the limitation period for Title VII claims.

Responding to Employment Discrimination

Thanks to the Civil Rights Act of 1991, employees’ ability to take legal action against their employers’ discriminatory practices has been greatly expanded. 

If you have been the victim of discrimination in the workplace, you have the option to take legal action in order to pursue justice and receive compensation for your losses. For a free review of your case and an evaluation of whether or not it is advisable to proceed to file a lawsuit, it is recommended that you speak with an experienced lawyer who has previously worked on employment discrimination cases like your own.

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