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What's Required to Prove Employment Discrimination

illustration showing white employee with a ladder and black employee with a broken ladder

To protect your legal rights, you need proof

Under both federal and Ohio law, you have the right to a workplace free from unlawful discrimination. If your employer violates those anti-discrimination laws, then you have legal recourse—if you can prove it.

Remember, not all unfair treatment in the workplace is illegal discrimination. To exercise your rights under Ohio and federal law, you need to show that you were treated differently on the basis of race, ethnicity, national origin, sex, gender, sexual orientation, religion, age (over 40), or another protected characteristic.

Understanding the elements of a workplace discrimination case

There are four key elements you need to prove to establish an employment discrimination case:

  1. You are a member of a protected class. For instance, if you're claiming age discrimination, you need to be over 40, and if you are claiming disability discrimination, you need to prove that you have a disability (or that your employer believed you had a disability).
  2. You were qualified for the job and met the employer's job performance expectations.
  3. You suffered an adverse employment action, such as being fired, denied a raise or bonus, reassigned to a less desirable shift or less prestigious project, denied professional development opportunities, etc.
  4. A similarly situated employee outside your protected class received preferential treatment.

These elements create what's called a prima facie case of discrimination—a legal term that literally means "on its face." At this point, the law presumes that you were indeed a victim of discrimination, and the burden of proof shifts to the employer to show that they had a non-discriminatory reason (such as poor job performance) for the adverse employment action. If your employer offers such a reason, then the court has to decide whether that reason is legitimate or pretextual (that is, a false or inadequate reason given to cover up the employer's discriminatory conduct). You can offer additional evidence to support your case and show that the reason given by your employer is pretextual.

Certain documents play a critical role in discrimination cases

Broadly speaking, there are two types of evidence in discrimination cases: direct evidence and circumstantial evidence. Direct evidence of discrimination is anything that explicitly relates the adverse employment action to your protected characteristic. For instance, if the CEO of your company explicitly said "we won't promote you because your disability makes you unreliable," that would be direct evidence of disability discrimination.

Of course, most employers are savvy enough to avoid making such direct statements, so most discrimination claims are based on circumstantial evidence: indirect evidence that shows the elements listed above. Some of the key pieces of evidence in a discrimination case are:

Performance evaluations: As noted above, part of your discrimination case is showing that you met your employer's job performance expectations. Moreover, if your employer argues that adverse employment action was performance-related and thus not discriminatory, you need records to show that your performance was not the issue. So, save copies of your annual reviews, feedback from your managers, awards and recognition, and any other acknowledgment of your job performance.

Written communications: Save copies of emails, text messages, Slack messages, and any other relevant communications. These messages might be direct evidence of discrimination; sometimes, people are comfortable expressing their true thoughts in text when they would be more cautious in speech. Messages from your managers and coworkers may also be evidence of strong job performance that can be used to show that your employer's explanation is pretextual.

Talk to an experienced discrimination attorney about your rights

The federal and state discrimination laws are complex. You may know you were treated unfairly, but proving your case to the satisfaction of the court is a complex process, and the way to navigate that process is to get an experienced discrimination lawyer on your side. If you've been discriminated against at work, contact Nilges Draher LLC for a free consultation. We can help.

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