When Should I Call a Civil Rights Attorney?

I get calls all the time with people asking me to represent them for violations of their Civil Rights.  Their neighbors are blasting loud music.  They have been fired from their job.  Their co-op is trying to evict them because their children are noisy.  Their neighbor is yelling racial epithets at them.  There is so much misunderstanding about what a Civil Rights Attorney can and can’t do for them, that I want to take some time to explain.

Lawsuits are expensive, and a Civil Rights Attorney will handle your case on a contingency retainer, but it must be an “actionable” case under the law where is it possible to collect money damages.  This means that there must be “clear liability” on the person or entity being sued, there must be provable economic, physical or psychological damages and it must be possible to collect a judgment.  A Civil Rights Attorney is not a “pro bono” attorney.


  1. Hostile Work Environment:  A co-worker says something nasty about your gender, race, national origin, religion, sexual orientation, etc.  You report it to your boss or the human resources department.  They speak to the co-worker, he apologizes and it never happens again.  This is not actionable, as the employer has corrected the situation.  A hostile work environment must be “pervasive,” which means that it has to be something that happens consistently over time.  On the other hand, if your boss keeps asking you out on dates, and passes over you for a promotion you deserve when you turn him down, this could be an actionable case.  A Civil Rights Attorney can sue for the extra money you would have made if you had received the promotion.
  2. Housing Discrimination: Your neighbor keeps complaining about the noise your children make and now your co-op is threatening you with eviction.  This is not the type of case that a Civil Rights Attorney can accept on contingency, but you will receive a warm welcome from the New York City Commission on Human Rights,  You can file a complaint and they WILL follow up as New York City protects families from discrimination based on “living with children.”
  3. False Arrest  : You are arrested because you vaguely fit the description of a “young black man” even though you did not commit any crime.  The criminal case against you is immediately dismissed as there is no evidence that you committed any crime and you have no criminal record.  This is the type of case a Civil Rights Attorney can handle for you.
  4. Inmate Abuse and Neglect: New Yorkers have rights even when they are incarcerated.  If you suffered from lack of medical care or were a victim of an assault while in detention, you might have an actionable claim.

These are some examples of when we can and can’t bring a lawsuit, but please feel free to call us if you suspect your Civil Rights have been violated.  At Wittenstein & Wittenstein we’ve been helping people assert their rights for over 60 years.  If we can’t make a case for you, we might be able to help you with some practical advice or a suggestion to file a complaint with a government agency.  Please call us with any concerns at 718-261-8114.


About the Author:

Alyce Wittenstein is a world class attorney, blogger and filmmaker. She began working at the firm in 1985 as a managing paralegal, learning all the practices and procedures of the firm from Mr. Wittenstein and the staff. From 1995-1998, she attended CUNY Law School where she made a mark as a teaching assistant for Civil Rights leader Haywood Burns. She founded a Human Rights Delegation to Haiti and studied Constitutional Law with Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. Working at the Equal Opportunity Employment Commision (EEOC), she learned a great deal about Employment Discrimination matters. She brought her knowledge of the Personal Injury practice and her passion for Civil Rights to the firm when she was admitted to the Bar in 1999. In 2000, she became a partner and the firm name was changed to Wittenstein & Wittenstein, Esqs. PC.

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