On April 11, 2020, Governor Northam signed S.B. 868 (a.k.a. the “Virginia Values Act”) into law. This bill, promoted by the Virginia Senate, will take effect on July 1, 2020, and will greatly expand the protection for workers in Virginia, particularly the protections provided by the Virginia Human Rights Act (VHRA), as well as expanding protections connected to housing and access to public accommodations.
Under the Virginia Values Act, employers with fifteen or more employees, are broadly prohibited from “unlawful employment practices” on the basis of race, color, religion, national origin, status as a veteran, sex, sexual orientation, gender identity, marital status, pregnancy, childbirth and related medical conditions, and lactation.
“Unlawful employment practice” is a much broader term than unlawful discharge, and may allow for causes of action based on discrimination in compensation, privileges or opportunities. Employers will also be required to provide reasonable accommodations related to pregnancy, childbirth, lactation, and related medical conditions, when requested by the employee. This means an employee can bring an action for discrimination without being terminated. The Virginia Values Act recognizes that discrimination takes many forms, not merely refusal to employee, and expands protections accordingly.
Perhaps even more significant, the Virginia Values Act creates a private right to a cause of action for aggrieved employees, though the process for bringing a cause of action under this Act is somewhat complicated. The employee alleging unlawful employment practices must first comply with the Act’s procedure by filing a complaint with the Division of Human Rights (DHR). The DHR will engage in its own investigations, but upon request from the employee will issue a notice of the right to file a civil action after 180 days have past from the original complaint.
The employee, with her notice of right to file a civil action may then bring an action in an appropriate Court that has jurisdiction over the employer. If the employee is successful in this action, the court or jury may award compensatory and punitive damages, as well as attorney fees and costs, and may grant any injunctions it deems appropriate. While the punitive damages would be capped at the state limit of $350,000.00, the compensatory damages and attorney fees are not capped, even by employer size.
This is a significant increase from the previous law, which limited potential damages to one years back pay for the position lost, and up to 25% of those damages in attorney fees. Limited damages made it harder to bring and maintain cases, as costs and fees could rapidly meet and potentially exceed any potential to recover.
While the Virginia Values Act will doubtlessly be the subject of a great deal of debate and will develop in the form of court decisions, it is clear that the VHRA, and the causes of action connected with it have been significantly and substantially increased and expanded for employees throughout the State.
If you believe that you may have a cause of action under the Virginia Values Act, please do not hesitate to contact us here at GBSR Attorneys. We are eager to help.