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The Virginia Values Act

The Virginia Values Act expands the scope of the Virginia Human Rights Act (§ 2.2-3900 et seq.), to prohibit discrimination in employment and housing by fundamentally changing the legal rights and remedies available to employees who sue their employers under the Act.   On April 11, 2020, Virginia Governor Northam signed this Act and it will go into effect on July 1, 2020.

Expanded Protections

The Virginia Values Act creates new protections and private rights of action in places of public accommodation, housing, and credit on the basis of race, color, religion, national origin, sex, pregnancy or related medical conditions, age, marital status, disability, and status as a veteran.  The Act adds sexual orientation and gender identity to the list of protected classifications under the Virginia Human Rights Act.

Expanded Right of Action

Additionally, the Act expands the right of action to include all forms of discrimination and retaliation, like federal law under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act.  And it expands the right to bring a case in a Virginia state court against employers with five or more employees. These expansions mean that Virginia state courts are now a much more attractive place for employees to sue employers.

Expanded Remedies

The Virginia Values Act also fundamentally changes the Human Rights Act’s private rights of action and the remedies available to employees who sue their Virginia employers (and purveyors of housing) by expanding an employee’s private rights of action for employment discrimination.  The Act also makes Virginia employers with five or more employees subject to private suits and greatly expands the damages available to employees, including allowing more than 12 months of backpay, compensatory and punitive damages, and uncapped potential attorneys’ fees awards.

Procedure to File a Virginia State Court Case

The new law retains the requirement that before employees can sue their employers, they must submit an administrative discrimination complaint with the Virginia Division of Human Rights.  After the Division of Human Rights has completed its investigation, it will issue a “reasonable cause” or “no reasonable cause” finding.  After issuing a reasonable cause finding, the Division will attempt to conciliate the dispute. If conciliation cannot be reached, the Division will close its investigation and provide the complainant with a notice of their right to commence civil action.

If the Division issues a “no reasonable cause” finding, it will close the case and provide the employee with a notice of the right to commence a civil action without attempting conciliation.  This procedure closely resembles that of the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission in its investigations of Title VII charges of discrimination.

What this Means for Wronged Virginia Employees

The Virginia Values Act means most cases will likely be filed in Virginia State Courts instead of federal courts and proceed to hearing.  Historically, most employment-based cases in federal court are decided at the summary judgment stage.  However, summary judgments are more difficult to obtain in employment cases in Virginia State Courts because a party generally may not rely on depositions or affidavits in support of summary judgment motions.  Effectively, the Virginia Values Act eliminates the advantage employers had to prevail at the summary judgment stage in federal court.  

In summary, the Virginia Values Act significantly expand the rights and remedies available to employee-plaintiffs to bring discrimination cases against employers in Virginia State Courts.

If you have been subject to workplace discrimination please contact me today.

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