Employment Discrimination

Do You Have a Claim?

One of the first questions I ask any employee contacting me for advice is why they think the situation they are calling me about occurred.  The EEOC lays out in very plain language who is protected under federal law:

“The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) is responsible for enforcing federal laws that make it illegal to discriminate against a job applicant or an employee because of the person’s race, color, religion, sex (including pregnancy), national origin, age (40 or older), disability or genetic information. It is also illegal to discriminate against a person because the person complained about discrimination, filed a charge of discrimination, or participated in an employment discrimination investigation or lawsuit.”  EEOC.gov.

The list of groups protected by federal law is constantly changing and is more complicated than the paragraph above indicated.  If you personally are white, for example, but are being discriminated against because you have an African-American spouse, then you would fall under the racial discrimination umbrella.  Because each class has complexities that may or may not permit you to bring a claim, the best rule to follow is this: when you are dealing with a situation at work which you believe may have been discriminatory, the first thing you need to ask yourself is whether you think that situation happened to you because of some reason that makes you unique or different from others.  If so, then keep reading to see if you have a potential claim of discrimination.

What Happened to You?

The second hurdle employees must pass in order to have an actionable claim is to determine whether the employee suffered a “prohibited personnel action.”  This area is fairly clear-cut:

“Title VII, the ADEA, and the ADA prohibit discrimination related to job decisions, employment practices, or other terms, conditions, or privileges of employment based on an individual’s protected status or, in some circumstances, an individual’s relationship to a protected individual.  In addition, the EPA prohibits compensation discrimination based on sex.”  EEOC.gov.

The EEOC goes on to give us some common personnel actions that are covered under the law: termination, failure to hire, promotion denial, an undesirable reassignment, denial of leave, denial of compensation, denial of benefits, denial of training, or unfair work assignments.  There is substantial case law that dives into the question of whether a certain action taken by the employer constitutes a “prohibited personnel action.”  If you think anything that has happened to you would fall into one of these categories and was motivated by any of the areas above, then you should contact us to determine whether you have an actionable, strong claim.

If the action taken against you does not fall into these categories, you may still be protected if the law interprets what has happened to you as harassment.

Were You Harassed?

Whether or not an action taken against an employee constitutes harassment is determined under a very simple guideline:

“Harassment that results in a tangible employment action or is sufficiently severe or pervasive to alter the conditions of employment will establish an actionable claim under the EEO statutes.” EEOC.gov.

As is the case with many areas of the law, however, a simple one-sentence answer means there is plenty of room for interpretation.  In fact, virtually every word of that sentence has been interpreted through countless court cases.  The first question is whether you suffered a “tangible employment action.”  This question revolves around whether or not your supervisor either harassed you directly or was made aware of the harassment but did nothing to help you.  The next question is whether what happened to you constitutes “severe or pervasive” harassment.  A “severe” event is one so egregious that it alone constitutes harassment.  In some cases, a single racial slur was enough to satisfy this standard – in a different case, an employee brandishing a firearm was not enough.  “Pervasive” harassment means smaller events that, taken together, create a single claim of harassment.  This standard is even harder to define than “severe.”  Finally, the question of whether the actions “altered the conditions of employment” goes to how you are affected by the harassment.  Both physical and psychological harm will meet this standard.

Harassment claims are arguably the most complex claims to review and it is often very difficult for anyone other than an experienced attorney in the field to know with any degree of certainty if a given case can be successful or is worth any monetary investment to pursue.  If the actions taken against you at work fall into the harassment category, I strongly encourage you to contact us so you can obtain our evaluation of your potential claim.