Both Federal and California laws prohibit discrimination in the workplace based on an employee’s “protected characteristics”. Under California’s broad, pro-employee laws (perhaps the best in the US), “protected characteristics” mean: “race, religious creed, color, national origin, ancestry, physical disability, mental disability, medical condition, marital status,
sex, age, or sexual orientation”.
Types of Discrimination
Discrimination comes in many flavors. There is “disparate treatment” and “disparate impact” discrimination – meaning an employee is treated differently because they are a member of a protected class.
“Disparate treatment” involves employer actions, e.g., promotion and termination, that single an employee because of a protected characteristic, e.g., only older workers are laid off or only males are promoted.
“Disparate impact” involves employer policies that have a disproportionate adverse effect on a protected characteristic group, e.g., a company policy of counting all absences and leaves against seniority that has a disproportionate adverse impact on women who have to take time off for pregnancy.
Then there is “harassment”, meaning harassing conduct such as slurs, touching, unwanted advances, intimidation, etc., because of the employee’s protected characteristic.
Harassment can be “hostile work environment” harassment, meaning harassing conduct that is so severe or pervasive that it creates a work environment that is hostile or abusive.
And in the case of sexual harassment, harassment can be “quid pro quo” (Latin for “this in exchange for that”), which refers to a situation where the employee’s supervisor has conditioned job benefits, such as a promotion or continuation of employment, on the employee’s accepting the supervisor’s sexual advances or conduct, e.g., a supervisor forcing a subordinate to sleep with him to keep her job or get a promotion.
If the harasser is the employee’s supervisor, the employer will be held strictly liable for the supervisor’s misconduct. If the harasser is the employee’s co-worker, however, the employer will be held liable only if a supervisor knew or should have known of the harassment and failed to take immediate and appropriate corrective action.
Federal versus State laws
Federal law, which includes the Age Discrimination in Employment Act, Equal Pay Act of 1963, Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and the Americans with Disabilities Act, is generally less favorable to employees than California’s Fair Employment and Housing Act, which doesn’t have damage caps, limited attorney fee provisions, restrictive legal burdens of proof or special employer defenses.
Also, federal law typically requires the employee to file an administrative charge with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) within a mere 180 days from the date of the discriminatory violation whereas California’s Fair Employment and Housing Act gives the employee 1 year to file such a charge with the California Department of Fair Employment & Housing (DFEH).
An employee who wins a discrimination lawsuit is entitled to recover several types of compensation, such as lost wages, emotional distress, litigation costs and statutory attorney fees. An employee could also recover punitive damages which are designed not to compensate the employee but to deter and punish the employer.
Discrimination laws, especially in California, offer powerful and effective protections for employees. However, discrimination laws are changing constantly, sometimes day-by-day, and can be difficult to navigate. If you think you have a discrimination case, do not wait. Strict time limits may apply. Contact a lawyer right away.