Does Texas law prohibit discrimination?

Federal law—through Title VII, the Age Discrimination in Employment Act, and the American with Disabilities Act—prohibits employment discrimination. However, are there any corresponding Texas laws that similarly prohibit discrimination? If so, how do they interact with federal law?

In Texas, the default rule is that an employer can fire an employee at any time for any reason. This is called employment-at-will. However, certain federal and state statutes place limitations on the employment-at-will doctrine by prohibiting employment discrimination, preventing employers from basing their employment decisions—hiring, firing, promoting, and paying—on an employee belonging to a protected class.

Texas has adopted the Texas Commission on Human Rights Act (TCHRA) as a state version of federal employment statutes. The TCHRA protects employees from discrimination based on race, color, disability, religion, sex, national origin, age, or genetic information. It was intended to provide Texans with the same rights that are provided in federal employment discrimination statutes.

Like federal employment statutes, the TCHRA only protects employees and not independent contractors. Whether or not a worker is an employee depends on whether the worker is economically dependent on the employer and whether the employer has the right to control how the worker performs his job. This approach to determining employee status is often called the hybrid test.

Further, the TCHRA only applies to employers engaged in or affecting commerce who have 15 or more employees.

Procedures

Under the TCHRA, an employee has 180 days to file a complaint with the Texas Workforce Commission (TWC). The TWC is the state agency that oversees and enforces the employment discrimination provisions of the TCHRA. In this way, the TWC is substantial similar to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) which enforces federal employment statutes.

Because the TCHRA is modeled after and references the federal employment statutes, federal law helps the TWC interpret the TCHRA and also provides policies and practices for how the TWC operates.

If an employee wants to take his employer to task for unlawful discrimination, he must exhaust his administrative remedies before seeking judicial action—that is, he cannot sue his employer in court without first filing a charge with the TWC and going through their process.

Remedies

The remedies available to a wronged employee under the TCHRA are much the same as those available under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act—a federal anti-discrimination statute. An employee can recover either equitable relief or monetary relief, and, in some cases, attorneys’ fees.

For example, a court can issue an injunction to an employer—an order requiring the employer to stop the discriminatory practice. A court can also order an employer to hire or reinstate the employee who has been discriminated against.

An employee who is unlawfully discriminated against is entitled to receive back pay. Back pay is the wages the employee would have received if the unlawful discrimination had not occurred and is calculated from the day the unlawful discrimination started to the day of a jury verdict.

However, back pay will only be awarded for the period no more than two years before the date the complaint is filed. Further, interim earnings, workers’ compensation, and unemployment benefits are subtracted from the award of back pay.

An employee may also be entitled to front pay which compensates an employee for lost future wages and benefits.

An employee who has been discriminated against may also be able to receive damages for emotional or mental distress if the discrimination was intentional. Similarly, to recover punitive damages—damages intended to punish a wrongdoer, instead of compensating a victim—an employee must show that the employer acted with malice or reckless indifference in discriminating against the employee.

Lastly, reasonable attorneys’ fees may be awarded to the prevailing party.