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Legal System / Terms


Overview of U.S. legal system. Generally, the U.S. Legal System consists of federal, state and local laws. These laws are created by passage of legislation and by case law decided in our federal and state court systems.

Federal statutes. The federal statutes are enacted by the U.S. Congress and are found in the U.S. Code. The U.S. Code may be abbreviated in our publications by U.S.C. Federal agencies that enforce these statutes create regulations or rules that carry out the statutes. Federal regulations can be found in the Code of Federal Regulations or C.F.R.

Federal court system. The Federal court system consists of the U.S. Supreme Court, the U.S. Courts of Appeals, and the U.S. District Courts. The U.S. District Courts consider the facts of each case during a trial and apply the law to those facts. Decisions of the U.S. District Courts can be appealed to the appropriate circuit of the U.S. Courts of Appeals, and ultimately to the U.S. Supreme Court. Our newsletter often refers to the decisions of particular U.S. Courts of Appeals. Below is a listing of the circuits of the U.S. Courts of Appeals and the states under their jurisdiction.

  • First Circuit: Maine, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Puerto Rico, Rhode Island.
  • Second Circuit: Connecticut, New York, Vermont.
  • Third Circuit: Delaware, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Virgin Islands.
  • Fourth Circuit: Maryland, North Carolina, South Carolina, Virginia, West Virginia.
  • Fifth Circuit: District of the Canal Zone, Louisiana, Mississippi, Texas.
  • Sixth Circuit: Kentucky, Michigan, Ohio, Tennessee.
  • Seventh Circuit: Illinois, Indiana, Wisconsin.
  • Eighth Circuit: Arkansas, Iowa, Minnesota, Missouri, Nebraska, North Dakota, South Dakota.
  • Ninth Circuit: Alaska, Arizona, California, Idaho, Montana, Nevada, Oregon, Washington, Guam, Hawaii.
  • Tenth Circuit: Colorado, Kansas, New Mexico, Oklahoma, Utah, Wyoming.
  • Eleventh Circuit: Alabama, Florida, Georgia.
  • District of Columbia Circuit: District of Columbia.
  • Federal Circuit: All federal judicial districts concerning certain limited issues.

State statutes. Each state has its own set of statutes which can create obligations in addition to federal laws for employers. Like federal statutes, state statutes may have rules or regulations which are created by the appropriate state agency to help carry out the statute.

State court system. Each state has its own court system consisting generally of district courts which hear the facts and apply the law to those facts, and an appellate court or courts which consider legal issues on appeal.

Local law. Municipalities and other local government entities also have laws which may impact on the obligations of employers, and should be considered when making employment decisions.


Terminology Used in the HR Care® Publications

ADA: Americans With Disabilities Act.

ADEA: Age Discrimination in Employment Act.

ADR: Alternative dispute resolution includes methods of resolving disputes outside the court system and include mediation and arbitration.

After-acquired evidence: Employers may discover evidence after an employee has been terminated which would have caused the employer to terminate the individual prior to any discriminatory act against the employee. Such evidence can be used to limit damages claimed by the employee or former employee.

Appeal: An appeal is when it is requested that a higher court review the decision of a lower court.

Back pay: These are damages awarded for compensation a former employee would have received from an employer after the employee was illegally terminated. Back pay is generally figured up to the time of judgment, and if the employee is not reinstated, then front pay may be awarded within the discretion of the court.

Bona fide occupational qualification (BFOQ): This is a defense against a discrimination claim which allows an employer in certain situations to discriminate against a protected class of individuals because of the requirements of the job. An example would be a male attendant in the men's restroom.

Class action: An individual(s) may bring an action against an employer on behalf of a group of individuals who are similarly situated to protect the rights of the group.

Compensatory time: "Comp time" is when employers give employees time off instead of overtime. It is currently not allowed under the FLSA for private employers.

Constructive discharge: An employee is constructively discharged when he/she has been forced to resign because of the discriminatory actions of the employer.

Defamation: A defamation claim arises out of an injury to a person's character, fame or reputatiion by false and malicious statements. The statements can be in writing or print (libel) or oral (slander).

Defendant: The defendant is the person or entity who must defend a legal action brought against the defendant by a plaintiff.

Disparate Impact: Discrimination can occur if a neutral policy of an employer has an adverse impact on a protected class of persons, e.g., race, color, sex, national origin, religion, age, disability.

Disparate Treatment: Discrimination can also occur if an employer intentionally discriminates against an individual because they are a member of a protected class.

DOL: Department of Labor.

De minimis: Generally this refers to the degree of accommodation that is required of an employer in the religious discrimination context. It means that an employer does not have to provide more than a minimal amount of accommodation as defined by the courts.

EEOC: The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. This is the federal agency that administers and enforces laws that protect individuals from certain types of discrimination in the workplace.

ERISA: The Employee Retirement Income Security Act provides requirements for pension and health and welfare benefit plans.

Exempt employees: These are employees who are exempt from the overtime and minimum wage provisions of the FLSA.

FLSA: The Fair Labor Standards Act provides wage and hour requirements for employers, including minimum wage, overtime and child labor. The FLSA is administered and enforced by the DOL.

FMLA: The Family and Medical Leave Act requires certain employers to give employees time off for family or medical events such as birth or adoption of a child or for a serious illness as defined by the Act.

Front pay: Front pay is awarded by a court instead of reinstating an individual. The amount is for a period of time in the future and is what the individual would have made in the position he/she would have held at the employer's place of business.

INS: The Immigration and Naturalization Service.

IRCA: The Immigration Reform and Control Act. The IRCA is administered and enforced by the INS, and has employment eligibility and verification requirements as well as discrimination provisions.

Mitigation: Courts will often require a plaintiff to "mitigate" or limit his/her damages. As an example, terminated employees must generally look for other work. Failure to mitigate damages may affect the damages awarded by the court.

NLRA: The National Labor Relations Act governs the relationship between unions and employers.

NLRB: The National Labor Relations Board administers and enforces the NLRA.

OFCCP: The Office of Federal Contract Compliance Programs is the federal agency that administers and enforces certain affirmative action laws related to federal contractors and their employment relationships.

OSHA: The Occupational Safety and Health Administration administers and enforces the Occupational Safety and Health Act.

Plaintiff: The plaintiff is the individual who complains or sues in a lawsuit against a defendant.

Protected classification: A variety of protected classifications have been created by discrimination laws including race, color, sex, national origin, religion, age, disability, veteran status.

Punitive damages: Punitive damages are awarded to punish the defendant. The purpose of this damage award is to discourage the defendant from repeating similar conduct.

Remand: An appellate court can remand or send back a case to the lower court from which it came to further act on the case.

Right to work: This concerns the right of employees to choose to join unions or to pay dues to unions. Federal law permits a variety of union security agreements, but state law may restrict a union's efforts to demand union membership or dues from employees.

Statute of limitations: This is the time period in which a plaintiff may file a claim against a defendant. The time period varies depending on the nature of the claim.

Title VII: Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibits employers from discriminating on the basis of race, color, sex, national origin and religion.

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Terminology Used in the HR Care Publications
U.S. Legal System Structure


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