Employment discrimination may occur when an employer refuses to hire, promote, fires, or treats an employee or prospective employee less favorably than similarly situated persons solely because of their background or a certain trait that is protected under the law. 

Pursuant to a federal anti-discrimination employment law known as Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (“Title VII”),  it is illegal for an employer to discriminate against employees or prospective employees based on the following characteristics:

  • Age;
  • Sex;
  • Race;
  • Color;
  • National origin; 
  • Gender;
  • Religion;
  • Disability;
  • Veteran status; and/or 
  • Pregnancy. 

Title VII generally applies to employers who have fifteen or more employees, including at locations of employment for federal, state, and local governments. In addition, many states have also enacted regulations to prevent discrimination and harassment in the workplace. These may offer extended protections at the state-level to persons who fall into different protected categories other than those in the above list. 

If you believe you been discriminated against by an employer, then it may be in your best interest to hire a local discrimination attorney. They can counsel you about your rights as an employee or job applicant and how to go about protecting them.

Who Is Covered by California Employment Discrimination Laws?

The California Department of Fair Employment and Housing (“DFEH”) is a state government agency. It is responsible for enforcing one of the main sources of California’s employment discrimination laws, namely, the Fair Employment and Housing Act (“FEHA”). According to the provisions set out in the FEHA, it is illegal for any employer who has five or more employees to discriminate against employees and job applicants due to a protected category.

Among other prohibitions, the Act also makes it illegal to retaliate against an employee or job candidate for exercising their legal rights, or to harass a worker because of a protected category. This applies regardless of the number of employees that an employer has working for them. 

The FEHA covers a broad range of employers, including employers in both public and private sectors, labor organizations, and employment agencies. However, the employment discrimination component of FEHA does not apply to the federal government nor to non-profit religious corporations or associations. 

As for workers though, this is where the law becomes a bit problematic. Only employees and job applicants have a right to be free from discrimination during an employer’s hiring, firing, and/or promoting processes. Under the law, an employee is defined as a person who is under the direction and control of an employer through appointment, apprenticeship, or contract of hire. 

The definition does not include independent contractors, those employed by family members, or those with special licenses to work in rehabilitation facilities or non-profit workshops. Thus, if an individual does not satisfy the definition of an employee or job candidate, then the Act will not protect them. 

All workers are protected from harassment in the workplace under the FEHA. This includes employees, volunteers, unpaid interns, applicants, and independent contractors. In other words, if an employer harasses anyone that they hire, paid or unpaid, the person can sue them for harassment and possibly, even collect damages. 

Do California Laws Cover Unintentional Discrimination?

In general, there are two types of discrimination claims: disparate treatment discrimination and disparate impact discrimination. Such claims are illegal under both federal and California state laws. Disparate treatment discrimination claims are the more common of the two. 

California law defines disparate treatment discrimination as a form of intentional employment discrimination. This is because it occurs when an employer targets a single employee based on a specific characteristic. 

On the other hand, disparate impact discrimination, also known as unintentional discrimination, happens when an employer implements a policy that may apply to all employees, but has a negative effect on only those with certain protected characteristics. This means that an employer can be held liable even if did not harbor any discriminatory intentions. 

To prove a disparate impact discrimination claim, the employee must demonstrate the following elements of proof:

  • That the employer is covered under anti-discrimination regulations (e.g., FEHA);
  • That the employer adopted a practice that had a disparate effect among employees in the workplace (e.g., negatively impacted members of a specific religion, gender, or race);
  • That the employee or prospective employee was harmed by this practice; and
  • That the employee or prospective employee is considered a member of the protected category of people. 

How Does an Employee Bring a Discrimination Lawsuit Under California Law?

A California employee who feels they were the victim of employment harassment or discrimination must first file a complaint with the DFEH. 

They can do this either by filing a complaint through DFEH’s online system located on their website, by submitting an intake form through the mail, or by calling the DFEH directly. Claimants should gather any related evidence, such as documents or the name and contact information of witnesses, so that the DFEH can begin the investigation process.

Claimants must submit their complaint to the DFEH within three years from the date they suffered harm and must obtain a Right-to-Sue notice from the DFEH before they may file a private lawsuit in civil court. After the DFEH concludes its investigation, they may either send the parties to mediation to try to settle the matter, may prosecute the case in court on behalf of the claimant, or if they find no violation has occurred, may close the case.

If the claimant finds that the DFEH’s investigation does not resolve their issue and they have received a Right-to-Sue notice, then they may file an employment discrimination lawsuit in civil court.

What Else Should I Know About California Employment Discrimination Law?

Another important anti-discrimination law that protects individuals from discrimination in the workplace is the California Family Rights Act (“CFRA”). Similar to the federal Family and Medical Leave Act (“FMLA”), the CFRA requires employers who have fifty or more employees to allow employees to take unpaid leave for up to twelve-weeks for specific family-related and/or medical reasons. 

This may include reasons, such as for the birth, adoption, or foster care placement of a child, to care for an employee’s immediate family member who has a serious health or medical condition (e.g., child, spouse, parent, etc.), or if an employee themself is unable to work due to a serious health condition. 

In addition, California employees who need to take leave for a pregnancy disability or would like to take paid family leave to deal with a personal issue should consult a local employment discrimination attorney for further guidance. A lawyer will be able to explain the requirements of other California employment discrimination laws like California’s Pregnancy Disability Leave or Paid Family Leave regulations.

Do I Need a California Attorney for Assistance with Employment Discrimination Law?

If you believe that an employer has violated your employment rights, then you should strongly consider hiring a California discrimination attorney immediatel (preferably one who has experience in handling employment discrimination issues).  

Your attorney will be able to determine whether an employer or prospective employer is in compliance with all federal and California state employment discrimination regulations. Your attorney can also discuss whether your employment rights were in fact violated, and if so, can advise you on the best course of legal action to take to help you resolve the matter. 

In addition, if you need help filing a complaint with the DFEH, your attorney can assist you with this as well.