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Employment Discrimination Claims in Tennessee

Cole Law Group, PC

Authored by Paul Tennison, Law Clerk, Cole Law Group, P.C.

Disclaimer: This article is not legal advice and is only intended to give a bit of background information about employment discrimination law under Federal and Tennessee statutes. Each employment discrimination case is different, and there are tactical considerations about when to sue and what claims to bring. For legal advice applicable to your specific situation, always contact an attorney licensed in your state.

What Is Employment Discrimination in a Nutshell?

Employment Discrimination Law is the body of law that applies to lawsuits based on unlawful discrimination that occurs in the workplace. As many of you already know, most employment arrangements in the United States have been termed At Will employment. At Will employment means that in the absence of a contract stating otherwise, employers are free to fire an employee for any reason, or for no reason. Similarly, employees are free to terminate their employment for any reason and seek opportunities elsewhere.

Employment Discrimination Law is comprised of statutorily created exceptions to the common law employment At Will doctrine. The most well-known Employment Discrimination statute in the United States is Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibits discrimination in employment against five protected classes: “race, color, religion, sex, or national origin.” 42 U.S.C.A. § 2000e-2. In general, employment discrimination laws protect employees against employers that commit an adverse employment action against an employee because of, or motivated by, that employee’s protected status.

What protected classes exist under Federal and Tennessee Law?

As stated above, Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act allows claims for employment discrimination because of, or motivated by, an employee’s race, color, religion, sex, or national origin. There were significant amendments to Title VII in the 1991 Civil Rights Act. 42 U.S.C. § 1983 today allows for suits based on race, color, and alienage in some circumstances. The 1967 Age Discrimination in Employment Act prohibits discrimination on the basis of age if the employee is over 40 years. 29 U.S.C. § 621. The 1978 Pregnancy Discrimination Act prohibits discrimination based on pregnancy, childbirth, and related medical conditions. The 1993 Family and Medical Leave Act requires employers in certain circumstances to allow an employee up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave for medical reasons. 29 U.S.C. § 2901. The 1963 Equal Pay Act prohibits discrimination in pay on the basis of sex. 29 U.S.C. § 206(d). The Americans with Disabilities Act prohibits discrimination on the basis of a recognized disability. 42 U.S.C. § 12111. There are also several other statutes that apply in less common circumstances; however, the list above includes the federal causes of action under which most employment discrimination claims are litigated.

The Tennessee Human Rights Act is similar to many of the Federal employment discrimination statutes. Tenn. Code. Ann. § 4-21-101; see also Wilson v. Rubin, 104 S.W.3d 39, 48 (Tenn. Ct. App. 2002). One of the stated purposes of the Tennessee Human Rights Act is to “safeguard all individuals within the state from discrimination because of race, creed, color, religion, sex, age or national origin in connection with employment…” Tenn. Code Ann. § 4-21-101. Because the purpose of the Tennessee Human Rights Act and several federal acts are similar, “Tennessee’s courts regularly consult the decisions of their federal counterparts for guidance when called upon to construe and apply the Tennessee Human Rights Act.” Wilson v. Rubin, 104 S.W.3d 39, 48 (Tenn. Ct. App. 2002).

A Prima Facie Claim for Employment Discrimination

In general, for a plaintiff to assert a claim of employment discrimination, a plaintiff must show: 1) the Plaintiff is a member of a protected class; 2) the employer engaged in an adverse employment action; 3) the Plaintiff was qualified for the job; and 4) under circumstances which give rise to an inference of unlawful discrimination. See McDonnell Douglas Corp. v. Green, 411 U.S. 792, 802 (1973). Adverse employment actions are generally interpreted as any action that changes the terms and conditions of employment, such as discharge, demotion, suspension, and a reduction in pay. Qualification is usually shown through education and experience. The best way to show the fourth element is through a similarly situated comparator. A similarly situated comparator is someone who is similar in all material aspects to the plaintiff except is not a member of the protected class and was treated more favorably by the employer.

Special Considerations for an Employment Discrimination Lawsuit

There are several special considerations that employment discrimination attorneys are cognizant of, but the average person may have never read. Some special considerations include the following:

  • A requirement to exhaust administrative remedies – This does not apply under every statute and these rules change in different jurisdictions over time. However, most employment discrimination statutes do require exhaustion of administrative remedies before bringing a lawsuit. Today, for example, if you wish to file under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, you must first file a charge with the federal or state equivalent Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) and obtain a right to sue letter. The full EEOC process includes filing a charge, an investigation by the EEOC, and perhaps mediation. The EEOC may determine to litigate the case on behalf of the public interest. However, today the EEOC is understaffed and overworked, which means that most charges filed receive little individualized attention and the EEOC will issue a notice of right to sue letter to the filer at the end of the investigatory period.
  • The number of employees – If you work for a really small employer (less than 15 employees), then Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 does not apply.
  • Government employment – The rules are different for government employees. For example, federal employees may only sue for employment discrimination under Title VII according to the Equal Employment Opportunity Act of 1972.
  • Retaliation – Have you been retaliated against for participating or encouraging protected behavior? Under certain circumstances this may also allow for a claim.
  • Defenses to the Lawsuit – Your employer may assert various defenses to the lawsuit. For example, The Same Decision Defense asserts that the employer would have made the decision to engage in the adverse employment action in the absence of the plaintiff being a member of the protected class. See Price Waterhouse v. Hopkins, 490 U.S. 228, 242 (1989). The Stray Remarks doctrine asserts that a small number of inappropriate comments are insufficient to establish liability.


I hope this article has communicated the basics of an employment discrimination claim and helped you to understand the conditions under which you might have a claim. Employment discrimination laws protect employees against employers that commit an adverse employment action against an employee because of, or motivated by, that employee’s protected status. Employment discrimination is a complex area of the law that is constantly changing as statutes are added or amended and court decisions interpreting the laws modify existing understanding. If you think you possibly have a claim, I would encourage you to speak with an attorney licensed in your state soon. Remember, the law aids the vigilant, not those that sleep on their rightsSee Brown v. Ogle, 46 S.W.3d 721, 726 (Tenn. Ct. App. 2000).

About the Author:

Paul Tennison is a 3rd year law student at Vanderbilt University with over seven years of management, human resources, and leadership experience in the United States Army. Paul continues to serve our country in the Tennessee Army National Guard. Paul is a 2010 West Point graduate and served on active duty for 5 years as a Field Artillery officer, including time overseas in South Korea and Germany. He has held the position of law clerk at Cole Law Group for the past eighteen months and looks forward to joining the firm as a licensed attorney.

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