Can a Nonprofit Be Sued for Discrimination?

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Discrimination law draws no distinction between nonprofit and for-profit organizations. Both types bear responsibility for complying with all federal, state, and local anti-discrimination laws. A nonprofit can be sued for discrimination by employees, volunteers, customers, vendors, people to whom it provides or refuses services, and members of the public. Members of a nonprofit board can also face lawsuits for discrimination. For this reason, it is very important that all nonprofit organizations create an anti-discrimination policy based on all applicable laws.

A nonprofit can be sued for violating anti-discrimination statutes as well as its own anti-discrimination policy. All people who work or volunteer for the organization are required to abide by the policy, which must encompass all laws within the jurisdiction where it operates. For example, all nonprofits must include federal discrimination law in their policies – such as those prohibiting discrimination based on sex, race, and disability. The policy must then include any additional state law requirements. For example, many states prohibit discrimination based on sexual orientation. Nonprofits must also abide by local regulations. For example, New York City specifically bars employers from denying religious accommodations – such as allowing an employee to take a break for prayer at the time his or her religious beliefs require.

Example of a Nonprofit Discrimination Policy

A nonprofit’s discrimination policy should list each legal basis on which it prohibits discrimination. It should further detail all activities it engages in for which it prohibits discrimination. The statement should then include an exhaustive list of all classifications of people to which the policy applies.

If the nonprofit is also an employer, it should include a separate statement specifically addressing employment discrimination. Nonprofits are subject to all of the employment discrimination laws of for-profit organizations, so nonprofit employment discrimination policies should include all the elements of employment discrimination requirements. These include all legally protected classes, activities where discrimination is prohibited (e.g., hiring, promotions, and terminations), and any applicable affirmative action requirements. Here is a hypothetical nonprofit’s discrimination policy:

Adopted by the Board of Directors on May 7, 2018

Healthcare Equality Services complies with all discrimination laws, including those based on race, color, religion, gender, age (over 40), nationality, physical or mental disability, marital status, sexual orientation, military record, citizenship, or arrest and conviction history where prohibited by New York City law. Healthcare Equality Services prohibits discrimination in all of its activities, such as hiring and firing of employees, volunteers, or vendors, as well as providing our services. We create a diverse and friendly environment for all staff, clients, volunteers, subcontractors, vendors, and clients.

Healthcare Equality Services is proud to be an equal opportunity employer. We practice no discrimination and take affirmative action measures to ensure against discrimination in all aspects of employment, hiring, pay rates, termination, promotion, and all other terms of employment, including working conditions. This includes discrimination against any employee or prospective employee on the bases of protected characteristics as defined under federal law, New York State law, New York City law, and discrimination laws of any other jurisdictions where we operate.

How to Sue a Nonprofit for Discrimination

Nonemployee lawsuits

When a nonemployee experiences discrimination by a nonprofit, the best method for redressing the grievance depends on the jurisdiction, the type of discrimination, and sometimes the type of organization. Lawsuits can be initiated by a local, state, or federal agency after the victim files a complaint, by a legal-action organization such as the American Civil Liberties Union, or be brought directly to court through a private attorney or pro se litigation. Certain types of discrimination require a charge be filed with the relevant governmental agency before a case can be filed in state or federal court.

Each state has a human rights act and an agency responsible for enforcing its provisions. State human rights acts always include prohibitions against discrimination based on federal criteria. Many states then add their own additional categories of discrimination. When a person experiences discrimination covered by the state’s human rights act, they can sue by filing a complaint with the state’s human rights department within 180 days of the incident.

For example, the Illinois Department of Human Rights (IDHR) enforces the state’s public accommodations law, which requires all organizations dealing with the public to provide reasonable accommodations to people with disabilities. If a nonprofit organization refused to accommodate a person because they were blind or in a wheelchair, that person could file a complaint against the nonprofit with the IDHR.

Nonprofits involved in housing are subject to housing discrimination laws that are enforced by state human rights departments or by the federal Department of Justice. For example, a nonprofit homeowners association that imposed unfair fines against a member because of race could face a housing discrimination charge, which would be filed with the appropriate state or federal agency.

The law prohibits healthcare nonprofits from refusing service to people for discriminatory reasons. For example, many lawsuits have been filed against medical nonprofits that refused services to transgender individuals. Discrimination in healthcare falls under the purview of the federal Department of Health and Human Services. Lawsuits in state and federal court could also result from this type of discrimination complaint.

Employment discrimination

Both state human rights departments and the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission enforce employment discrimination laws. Complaints are subject to strict time limits. With few exceptions, a claim must be filed within 180 days of the incident of discrimination. For example, if a person believes they were fired from a nonprofit because of their religion, he or she needs to file the complaint within 180 days of the termination. When a complaint is filed with the EEOC or a state human rights department, it is automatically cross filed with its state or federal counterpart. The choice of where to file the claim is often based on the laws of the particular jurisdiction.

Nonprofit organizations must comply with all anti-discrimination laws. Failure to comply often results in a complaint against the nonprofit with a state or federal agency. By creating a policy against illegal discrimination that applies to all employees, volunteers, vendors, customers, and the public, nonprofits can protect themselves against liability. Bringing a case for discrimination against a nonprofit can result in protracted litigation and substantial monetary awards.

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