Do I Have an Employment Discrimination Case?

by Team eLocal
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Reviewed by Carina Jenkins, J.D.

Work is a necessary part of life for most people, and discrimination at your job can make life difficult. That’s why there are laws in place to protect employees from certain kinds of mistreatment.

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Discrimination laws can offer protection whether you're seeking a new job, pursuing a promotion or trying to make the most of your current position. If an employer has treated you unfairly, you may have an employment discrimination case.

What Is Employment Discrimination?

Discrimination commonly means to treat a person differently or less favorably based on one or more of the person's traits. Employment discrimination involves managers or business owners mistreating a person based on a protected trait.

State and federal laws protect people from workplace discrimination, and protected traits include:

  • Race
  • Sex
  • Pregnancy
  • Religion
  • National origin
  • Physical disability
  • Sexual orientation
  • Age, especially against people aged 40 or older

Employment discrimination can take many forms, but it often involves harassment, retaliation or denial of a benefit.

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What Are Some Examples?

Some forms of workplace discrimination are obvious, such as when a manager harasses you due to your race or gender. This behavior could be name-calling, unwanted sexual advances or inappropriate comments.

Discrimination also happens when an employer refuses to offer promotions or positions to someone based on a protected attribute. There may be employment discrimination if an employer refuses to promote qualified female employees or won't hire people over a certain age.

Some employers are required to make reasonable accommodations for disabilities or religion. For example, an employer may be required to accommodate a cashier who needs to be able to sit down during their shift due to a disability. As another example, laws require some employers to allow religious head coverings, even if employees usually aren't permitted to wear hats at work.

Discrimination can also include retaliation for complaining about mistreatment in the first place. A business owner shouldn't, for example, penalize an employee for complaining about a supervisor's inappropriate or racist comments.

What Legal Options Are Available if You Experience Job Discrimination?

If an employer discriminates against you in a way that violates a law, you may be able to take legal action. You may have the option to file a complaint with your state's department of labor or sue the employer in court. Sometimes employment discrimination violates federal laws, and you may have the option of seeking help from the federal Department of Labor or the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.

Understanding what steps to take when an employer has discriminated against you can be difficult because complex laws apply to these cases. You can get more information from your state's department of labor, and it's always a good idea to speak with an employment discrimination attorney.

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What Do You Have to Prove in an Employment Discrimination Case?

To win an employment discrimination case, a person needs to show that an employer engaged in a discriminatory act, such as:

  • Terminating the person's employment
  • Subjecting the person to a hostile working environment through harassment or other conduct
  • Refusing to hire or promote the person
  • Treating the person worse than other employees who weren't part of the protected class

To win a case, you'll have to prove that the employer's actions were due to discrimination and not for a valid reason. For example, if you were passed over for a promotion because a coworker was more qualified, you may be unable to prove your employer violated the laws.

You'll also need to prove you're a member of a protected class and that relevant employment discrimination laws apply to your employer. Rules on employment discrimination can vary, depending on location and the type of employer involved. Some federal discrimination laws, such as Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, don't apply to small local businesses with fewer than 15 employees. State antidiscrimination laws can vary, and they may apply to smaller companies or protect different classes of people.

What Types of Damages Can You Seek?

Damages typically refer to money a court might order your employer to pay you. Compensatory damages cover money lost due to discrimination. A court might order your employer to pay you for lost wages, job search expenses or medical bills. Punitive damages are meant to punish an employer for wrongdoing and discourage them from doing the same thing in the future.

In some cases, you can also ask that your employer fix the discrimination. You might ask to have your job back, get needed accommodations or have the employer implement policies to stop ongoing harassment.

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