Florida court: Widow can bring discrimination claim on behalf of late husband

Ruling gives surviving family members hope in the aftermath of an especially tragic discrimination case.

Hostile discrimination at work can take a dramatic - and sometimes deadly - toll. A recent Florida employment law case illustrates just how devastating discrimination can be for both the employee and his or her loved ones. The case involves an American Airlines employee who allegedly suffered severe and ongoing racial discrimination at the hands of his supervisor. Eventually, the employee lost his job, and he committed suicide a few days later.

The employee's widow sought to hold American Airlines accountable under the Florida Civil Rights Act (FCRA). Similar to Title VII of the federal Civil Rights Act of 1964, the FCRA prohibits employment discrimination on the basis of race, national origin and other protected grounds. The widow filed a discrimination claim on her husband's behalf with the Florida Commission on Human Rights (FCHR), the agency responsible for investigating these claims and issuing right-to-sue letters. She alleged that the illegal discrimination led to her husband's wrongful termination and, ultimately, his death.

The FCHR dismissed her claim, reasoning it didn't have authority to investigate the allegations because the husband never filed a claim during his lifetime. The Florida Fourth District Court of Appeal disagreed. Examining the language of the FCRA, it noted that the law allows not only employees to bring discrimination claims, but also legal representatives and other aggrieved individuals. The widow fit the bill as both the personal representative of her husband's estate and an individual who was harmed by the discrimination.

What does this mean for those facing similar tragedies?

The court's decision opens the door for surviving family members to hold employers accountable in tragic situations like these. However, from a practical standpoint, claims involving deceased employees may involve additional challenges such as:

  • A tight deadline: The time limit for filing a claim under the FCRA is 365 days from the discriminatory occurrence. With the many other legal considerations that follow the death of a loved one - such as probate and estate administration - it can be easy to lose track of this important deadline. What's more, evidence of discrimination may not come to light until much later.
  • Difficulties getting evidence: Without the victim available to testify about the discrimination he or she suffered, a successful claim requires digging deeper to find the right evidence. Perhaps other employees witnessed the discrimination. Perhaps emails or other written records document what happened. It may take a creative, outside-the-box approach to build a strong claim.

With the court's decision still fresh, it remains to be seen whether cases like these can ultimately succeed. Yet the decision provides hope for those who have lost a family member because of unlawful and damaging discrimination.