What Exactly Is Employment Discrimination And How Is It Proven?
Employment lawyers hear it all the time, “my boss discriminated against me.” Often however, what people think of as discrimination and the type of discrimination that violates California or federal employment laws are two different things.
When someone feels unfairly treated by a boss or supervisor, or after a termination that is perhaps unjustified, the reaction is often “I’ve been discriminated against!” This may be true, in the ordinary meaning of the word. Webster’s Dictionary defines “discrimination” to mean “the practice of unfairly treating a person or group of people differently from other people or groups of people.”
The legal definition of “discrimination” is much more narrow. When we talk about discrimination in employment, we mean a practice or action that negatively impacts an employee because of a characteristic belonging to that person. Only certain characteristics are protected under the law. They include race, disability, sex, age, religion and sexual orientation.
Discrimination Under California and Federal Law
Both California and federal laws prohibit workplace discrimination. The federal law is referred to as “Title VII” and prohibits discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex, or national origin. 42 U.S.C. § 2000e-2(a)(1). The most important California law protecting employees from discrimination is the Fair Housing and Employment Act. Referred to as the “FEHA,” it is broader than the federal law, and also prohibits discrimination based on genetic information, marital status, sex, gender, gender identity, gender expression, age, sexual orientation, or military and veteran status. Cal. Govt. Code § 12940(a). Employees who share one (or more) of the characteristics protected by these laws are said to be members of a “protected class.” Because of this, most discrimination cases focus on whether employees who are not members of the protected class were treated better than employees who are members of that class.
Establishing a claim for workplace discrimination in California centers around the employee being able to prove that he or she received less favorable treatment because of a protected characteristic. The employee must show that (1) he or she belongs to a protected category (i.e., a “protected class”), (2) he or she was qualified for the job position, (3) he or she was subject to an “adverse employment action,” and (4) similarly situated individuals who were not members of protected class were treated more favorably. Guz v. Bechtel Nat. Inc. (2000) 24 Cal.4th 317, 355.
What Actions Qualify as Discrimination Against Employees?
To prove discrimination, the employee must show that the employer took an “adverse employment action” against the employee (i.e., some action that disadvantages the employee in his or her employment in some way) and that the action was motivated by discrimination. Adverse employment actions take different forms and include:
- Termination or firing
- Reduction in pay
- Loss of benefits
- Denial of promotion
- Unfavorable transfer
- Failure to interview or hire
- Any other decision that “materially affects the terms and conditions of employment”
How Are Employment Discrimination Cases Proven?
Not surprisingly, employers and supervisors rarely admit they acted with illegal motives. It’s common knowledge that employment decisions cannot be based on race, sex, disability or other protected characteristics. Because of this, discrimination cases generally turn on circumstantial evidence of discriminatory motives. The more and the stronger the circumstantial evidence that the adverse employment action was taken because of discriminatory motives, the better the employee’s chances of prevailing.
Circumstantial evidence comes in many forms. In a classic example, three employees, two men and a woman, are regularly showing up late, but only the woman is fired. This creates an inference that the true reason for the termination was gender, not being late. Evidence also comes in the form of comments, either spoken, or in writing, that point to discrimination. Comments like “we can’t promote you because of your accent,” “you make too much money,” or “you are nearing retirement,” also point to discriminatory intent.
Discrimination can also be proven by showing that the employer’s stated reason for the adverse employment action is untrue or is simply a cover-up for the true reason: discrimination. Employers often claim an employee was terminated for poor performance or because of some other non-discriminatory reason. If the employee has evidence that the employer’s stated reason is “pretextual” (i.e., a cover-up) or is simply false, the employee may prevail in court.
Making a Claim for Discrimination
If you believe you are the victim of workplace discrimination, you shouldn’t’t wait to seek help. Discrimination claims are very time sensitive and delay can easily result in loss of your claim. Under both California and federal anti-discrimination laws, employees must file a complaint with a government agency before filing a lawsuit. In California, employees have 1 year from the date of the discriminatory act to file with the Department of Fair Housing and Employment (DFEH).
Contact our Orange County Office Today
If you believe you are the victim of discrimination at work, you should consult an employment lawyer. The Orange County based Law Offices of Corbett H. Williams represents employees in discrimination, harassment, retaliation, wrongful termination, wage & hour, whistleblower and other employment matters. If you think you have a claim, contact us today at 949-679-9909 or use the contact form below and we will respond promptly.