According to Business Week, the Equal Employment Opportunity Council (EEOC) received a record number of complaints last year of employment-related discrimination. Overall, 99,922 charges were filed in fiscal year 2010 (October 1, 2009 through September 30, 2010), and 20,149 resulted in some form of resolution favorable to the employee.
The article mentions that the weak economy may be a factor in the high number of complaints. Based on my experience, I'm not sure I agree. Yes, as more people are laid off, it makes intuitive sense that some will believe unlawful reasons were a factor in the decision. But I think this does not give people enough credit for their understanding of how a business operates. I have not had a single client come into my office claiming discrimination through a reduction in workforce. Most people understand that a bad economy will result in lay-offs and restructuring. Almost uniformly, the people who come to me for help share stories of a hostile work environment or a malevolent boss. Sometimes I have to tell these people that being treated badly at work isn't itself unlawful - it is not against the law to act like a jerk. But a lot of times they have good reason to believe that their protected status was the motivating factor in their discharge. It may be that a bad economy gives those in power more license to engage in discrimination when it comes time to choose which employees to let go.