The Virginia Human Rights Act (VHRA) prohibits certain employers from discriminating against employees and job applicants on the basis of:
- sexual orientation
- gender identity
- marital status
- pregnancy, childbirth or related medical conditions including lactation
- status as a veteran, or
- national origin
In the VHRA, discrimination means failing to hire, firing, or making decisions about pay, or promotions, or job conditions based on one or more of these listed categories. It is also discrimination for an employer to use one or more of these categories to limit, segregate, or classify employees or job applicants in any way that could deprive them of employment opportunities.
The VHRA also prohibits employers from retaliating against employees acting in ways that the VHRA protects, such as filing a claim against their employer, or objecting to their employer’s unlawful conduct, or participating in another employee’s claim against the employer.
In cases where unlawful discrimination has resulted in the employee’s termination, the VHRA permits lawsuits in Virginia state courts against employers with as few as five employees. For other claims of discrimination, the VHRA applies to employers with 15 or more employees.
Before an employee can file a lawsuit against the employer, the VHRA requires the employee to first submit the claim to the Virginia Division of Human Rights. The Division of Human Rights will investigate the claim and will issue a finding that there is either “reasonable cause” or “no reasonable cause” to believe that the discrimination claim is valid. If the Division finds “no reasonable cause,” it will close the investigation. If it finds “reasonable cause,” the Division will attempt to settle the dispute. No matter what the Division finds, unless there is a settlement the Division will inform the employee of his, her, or their right to sue the employer.
The VHRA treats employment agencies, labor organizations, and joint apprenticeship committees like employers with respect to their duty to treat employees fairly. In addition, the VHRA extends similar protections to persons who have been discriminated against in places of public accommodation, such as shops, restaurants, hotels, and schools, and in real estate transactions.
Remedies for workplace discrimination under the VHRA now include uncapped compensatory damages, punitive damages up to $350,000, and uncapped reasonable attorneys’ fees and costs. They can also obtain injunctions or other orders to prevent the employer from engaging in discriminatory practices in the future.