Marital status is generally not a protected class under federal employment law. However, around half of the states in the U.S. have state laws that make it a protected class. Where it is a protected class, employers cannot discriminate against you based on your marital status. If they do, you have legal recourse under anti-discrimination laws in the workplace.
Is marital status a protected class under federal law?
No, marital status is not a protected class under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the leading federal employment law. However, it can be a protected class under other federal employment laws. These other laws, however, only apply to a small group of cases.
Title VII is the federal employment law that governs most employers across the United States. It forbids workplace discrimination based on your:
- sex, or
- national origin.1
While workplace discrimination on the basis of your sex has been expanded by the U.S. Supreme Court to include sexual orientation, gender identity, or transgender status,2 sex discrimination does not cover marital status.
However, another federal law, the Civil Service Reform Act of 1978 (CSRA) does forbid marital status discrimination. The CSRA, though, only applies to employees in the federal government.3
Because the Civil Rights Act does not cover marital status, allegations of marital status discrimination are not handled by the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC). Instead, those that arise under the CSRA in the federal government are investigated by the Merit Systems Protection Board (MSPB) and the U.S. Office of Special Counsel (OSC).
For the most part, marital status discrimination is an issue that falls to state law.
Do state employment laws list it as a protected class?
Around half of the states in the U.S. list marital status as a protected class. In states where it is a protected class, you can file a workplace discrimination lawsuit based on disparate treatment that targets your marital status. In states where it is not a protected class, you cannot. Even where you cannot claim discrimination on the basis of marital status, though, your employer’s conduct may still be discriminatory in other ways.
Some of the states where marital status is a protected class for workplace discrimination are:
- New Jersey,10 and
- New York.11
In these states, you can file a complaint with your state’s version of the EEOC. If that does not resolve the issue, you can file a discrimination lawsuit in state court.
A few other states have human rights laws that do not bar discrimination based on marital status. However, they bar parental status or familial status discrimination. In these states, like Kentucky,12 it is unlawful to discriminate against someone in the workplace because that person is the custodian or caregiver for underage children.13 Workers in these states may find that they have similar legal protections in the workplace to those that bar marital status discrimination.
Other states do not bar any of these types of discrimination in the workplace. Some examples are:
- Iowa, and
Even in these states, though, discrimination that targets your marital status may be unlawful for also targeting another protected trait, like your sex.
What is a protected class?
A protected class is a group of people who share traits or characteristics that are legally protected from discrimination or harassment. These are generally traits or characteristics that you either:
- cannot change about yourself, like your age or race, or
- should not be forced or coerced into changing about yourself, like your religion.
State and federal anti-discrimination laws include certain traits in their lists of protected classes. This gives people with those traits legal recourse if they are discriminated against in:
- the workplace,
- educational opportunities, and
- public accommodations.
What can I recover in a marital status discrimination lawsuit?
Generally, you can recover 3 types of damages in a discrimination lawsuit:
- money damages,
- punitive damages, and
- equitable remedies.
Your money damages are the financial compensation that you are owed for your losses. That financial compensation covers your:
- lost back pay, generally with interest,
- front pay,
- other employment benefits that you lost, like health insurance and vacation time,
- emotional distress,
- court costs, and
- attorneys’ fees.
Punitive damages are payments meant to punish the employer who discriminated against you. They provide financial payments above what you need to recover from the ordeal. They are rare in discrimination cases, though, and are often only awarded if your employer’s behavior was extremely bad.
Equitable remedies are court orders that fix the situation. For workplace discrimination claims, they often take the form of reinstatement. Victims of marital discrimination, though, often do not want to return to work in such a discriminatory environment. While employers are not allowed to retaliate against you if you do come back, the workplace is often tense.
What is the law in California?
In California, marital status is a protected class.14 Discriminating against you on this basis violates the California Fair Employment and Housing Act (FEHA). Such discrimination can take the following forms:
- refusing to hire you,
- refusing to choose you for a training program that would lead to workplace advancement,
- firing you,
- demoting you,
- laying you off, or
- giving you disparate treatment with regards to the terms, conditions, or benefits of your employment, like not giving you equal pay.15
Your marital status can be the target of disparate treatment if you are:
- currently married, including to a spouse of the same sex,
- married, but separated or seeking a divorce,
- engaged to be married,
- planning to get married, or
- planning to never get married.16
If your employer makes employment decisions based on your marital status, it can amount to employment discrimination. For example, during the hiring process, it can be discriminatory for a potential employer to ask a job applicant about their:
- maiden name,
- plans to get married, or
- spouse’s name, age, religion, or other personal details.
However, such questions are not discriminatory if the employer can show, in good faith, that the characteristic is a bona fide qualification for the job. For example, employers can ask for all of your prior names to run a background check or research your work history. They can also ask about your relatives if there is a company policy to separate spouses or family members within the company to prevent conflicts of interest.
If you think that you have been discriminated against because of your marital status, you usually have to file a complaint with the California Civil Rights Department (CRD), first. You cannot file the complaint with the federal EEOC because federal laws generally do not prohibit workplace discrimination based on marital status.
These complaints with the CRD generally must be submitted within 3 years of the last discriminatory incident.17
After the complaint is filed with the CRD, an investigator will contact you within 60 days to get details about your case.
If the CRD chooses to handle the complaint, it will offer dispute resolution services. If a resolution cannot be negotiated, the CRD will investigate further. If the investigation finds evidence of discrimination, the CRD will try to mediate the case. If mediation does not produce results, the CRD may pursue a lawsuit on your behalf.
If at any point the CRD declines to pursue your case, it will issue you a right to sue letter. You can then file a marital status discrimination claim in California state court.
Throughout this process, it is essential to have the legal advice of an employment lawyer from a reputable law firm.
- 42 USC 2000e-2.
- Bostock v. Clayton County, 140 S.Ct. 1731 (2020).
- 5 USC 2301.
- Alaska Statute 18.80.220.
- California Government Code 12940(a) GOV.
- Connecticut General Statute 46a-60.
- Delaware Code Annotated Title 19 Section 711(b).
- Florida Statute 760.10.
- Minnesota Statute 363A.02.
- New Jersey Statute Annotated 10:5-12.
- New York Executive Law 296.
- Kentucky Revised Statute 344.020(1)(b).
- See Kentucky Revised Statute 344.010(15).
- California Government Code 12940(a) GOV.
- California Code of Regulations 11053.
- California Government Code 12960 GOV.