Can I sue my employer for discrimination in California?

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Brent S. Buchsbaum - Employment Litigation - Super Lawyers

Answered by: Brent S. Buchsbaum

Located in Long Beach, CACarlin & Buchsbaum LLP

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It took decades to accomplish, but with the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, Congress finally took steps to end discrimination in the U.S. Subsequent legislation passed in Washington and Sacramento has strengthened protections for employees when it comes to hiring, promotion and discharge decisions. California's Fair Employment and Housing Act in particular provides a powerful means of combating employment discrimination.

In California, it is illegal for an employer to discriminate on the basis of:

  • Race or color
  • Age (over 40)
  • Gender or gender identity
  • Disability, either physical or mental
  • Religion
  • Medical condition
  • National origin or ethnicity
  • Sexual orientation
  • Marital status
  • Pregnancy or breast-feeding
  • Military or veteran status
  • Genetic information

All organizations that have five or more employees must comply with California's Fair Employment and Housing Act, including private employers, government entities, nonprofit organizations, labor unions and apprentice programs.

Filing An Employment Discrimination Claim

People who have suffered an adverse employment outcome based on one of the above factors can take legal action to obtain compensation and justice.

A person who has suffered illegal employment discrimination must first file a complaint with California's Department of Fair Employment and Housing (DFEH). However, given the backlog of cases that DFEH faces, it often makes sense for an employee to file a lawsuit rather than relying on DFEH to conduct an investigation. DFEH does not represent complainants; instead, it operates as a neutral investigator. Therefore it often makes sense for an employee to file a lawsuit. If an employee wishes to file a lawsuit, he or she can request an immediate "right to sue" notice from DFEH. When this is issued, the employee can file a lawsuit. 

An experienced plaintiff's employment attorney will have the investigative resources, legal knowledge and advocacy skills needed to obtain results in an employment discrimination case. 

Here are some other important things to know about such claims: 

  • A complaint must be filed within one year of an alleged discriminatory event.
  • Complaints and lawsuits are not limited to U.S. citizens. One can file a complaint with DFEH regardless of citizenship or immigration status.
  • If the lawsuit is successful, the employee may be entitled to compensation for past and future lost wages, higher income from a denied promotion, benefits and emotional distress. In cases involving disability discrimination, an employee may be entitled to attorney fees and costs. In some cases, punitive damages may be awarded.

How Do I Know If I'm A Victim Of Employment Discrimination?

Employment discrimination can be obvious and readily perceived. But more often it is subtle. If you have experienced one or more of these events, you may be a victim of employment discrimination:

  • Being shut out of important meetings, while others at an equal or lower job classification are included
  • Sudden and inexplicable change in your performance reviews
  • Reduction in work duties or sudden increase in work duties unrelated to the employer's level of business activity
  • Failure of your employer to stop comments, jokes or harassment relating to your race, gender, disability, etc.

If you believe you are a victim of illegal employment discrimination, speak with an employment law attorney. Most attorneys working in this field provide free initial consultations, and when they accept discrimination cases, they usually work on a contingent fee basis.

Disclaimer: The answer is intended to be for informational purposes only. It should not be relied on as legal advice, nor construed as a form of attorney-client relationship.

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