“Protected Class” Warfare: Is All Discrimination and Harassment Illegal?
Believe it or not, not all workplace discrimination and harassment is unlawful. For example, it’s okay to harass a Los Angeles Clippers fan for years of underachieving. To be considered unlawful, harassment or discrimination related to a “protected class.” The definition of protected class continues to evolve. In an employment relationship, the employer typically has most of the power. However, the protections and remedies of state and federal antidiscrimination/harassment laws provide a semblance of a power balance.
When Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 became law, there were five protected classes: Race, color, religion, sex, and national origin. Currently, under California law, there are at least eighteen (and counting) protect classes, including the five original protected classes as well as: disability (physical, mental, or perceived), age, genetic information, marital status, sexual orientation, gender identity and gender expression, AIDS/HIV, medical condition, political affiliation or activity, citizenship status, military or veteran status, and victim of domestic violence, assault or stalking. Also, an employee who complains about unlawful activity is protected as a whistleblower.
Federal antidiscrimination/harassment laws apply to employers with 15 or more employees, except the following: age discrimination (employers with 20 or more employees); citizenship status discrimination (four or more employees); and equal pay for men and women (all employers). California’s antidiscrimination laws apply to companies with five or more employees.
Many California employers and employees alike get hung up on the concept that California is an “at-will” employment state, meaning that in the absence of a specified term, either the employer or the employer can terminate the employment relationship for any reason, at any time, without notice. While that is technically the law according to California Labor Code § 2922, the exceptions to this general rule have rendered it meaningless for all intents and purposes. As a practical effect of so many broadly defined protected classes, chances are there are real limitations on your employer’s ability to terminate your employment.
If your employer treats you differently from other employees or subjects you to inappropriate conduct because of your membership in a protected category, then you have powerful remedies available to you. Furthermore, if your employer takes any adverse employment action—such as, discipline, demotion, or termination—your employer must have a definite, business-related reason for doing so. Otherwise, you can draw an inference that your employer took the adverse employment action because you are a member of a protected category.
The bottom line is that you don’t have to submit to workplace discrimination or harassment. You can fight, and in the hands of the right attorney, the law provides you some powerful weapons. If you want to learn more, check out www.JohnLattinLaw.com.
 In addition to state and federal law, local municipalities may enact ordinances that create additional protected classes. For instance, height and weight are protected classes in the City of San Francisco.