Although most fair employment laws have their genesis in the civil rights movement, a federal law passed shortly after the Civil War still has application in today’s workplace. The Civil Rights Act of 1866 prohibits discrimination in the making and enforcement of contract based upon race or color. The employment relationship is contractual in nature and thus the Act prohibits employment discrimination based upon race or color. Congress, in subsequently passing the Civil Rights of 1991, ensured hat the Civil Rights Act of 1866 applied to employment relationships. The Act also applies to labor unions. The Act does not provide for a cause of action against the federal, state, county or city governments.
The Act does not cover discrimination based upon age, gender, religion, or national origin. Discrimination based on color or race is prohibited. The courts, however, have defined “race” and “color” as those terms were used at the time the Act was passed by Congress and signed into law. Thus, the Act has been found to preclude discrimination based upon Iraqi or Egyptian ancestry since people of middle-eastern heritage were considered “colored” at the time the Act was passed. The Act has also found application with regard to Mexican-Americans since they too were considered “colored” at the time the Act was passed. Of course, African-Americans are protected under the Act.
Unlike Title VII and other fair employment laws, the Civil Rights Act of 1866 does not require the employee to first file with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission before filing suit. The Act contains no administrative prerequisites and thus an employee’s claim under the Act may be viable long after claims under other fair employment laws are administratively precluded. The statute of limitations is four years. Under the Act, an employee may recover equitable relief, compensatory and punitive damages. Furthermore, the Act does not require that the employer affect commerce and the Act does not contain a minimum number of employees. Title VII requires that the employer employ more than fifteen employees before the employer is subject to Title VII requirements. An employer with a single employee is covered under the Civil Rights Act of 1866.
Like all fair employment laws, the Act provides protection against discriminatory treatment. The employee still bears the burden of proving that he or she is a member of a protected class of individuals based on race or color, that he or she was the subject of an adverse employment action and that race or color motivated the employer’s conduct.