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Thursday, October 18, 2018

Disparate Treatment Via Hostile Work Environment

by Gregory Williams, Esq. | Under the Washington State direct evidence approach, may an employee-plaintiff build a prima facie case of disparate treatment based on a hostile work environment? Here’s my point of view (NOTE: please read our DISCLAIMER before proceeding). 

Washington Law Against Discrimination

Under the Washington Law Against Discrimination (WLAD), it is an unfair practice, with very few exceptions, for an employer to refuse to hire any person, to discharge or bar any person from employment, or to discriminate against any person in compensation or in other terms and conditions of employment because of age (40+); sex (including pregnancy); marital statussexual orientation (including gender identity); race; color; creed; national origin; honorably discharged veteran or military status; HIV/AIDS and hepatitis C status; the presence of any sensory, mental, or physical disability or the use of a trained dog guide or service animal by a person with a disability; and state employee or health care whistleblower status. It is also an unfair practice for an employer to retaliate against an employee because the employee complained about job discrimination or assisted with a job discrimination investigation or lawsuit.

Disparate Treatment

Disparate treatment is a form of employment discrimination, and it occurs when an employer treats some people less favorably than others based on protected class. Accordingly, to establish a prima facie disparate treatment discrimination case, a plaintiff must show that his employer simply treats some people less favorably than others because of their protected status. Alonso v. Qwest Commc’ns Co., LLC, 178 Wn.App. 734, 743, 315 P.3d 610 (Wash.App. Div. 2 2013) (citing Johnson v. Dep’t of Soc. & Health Servs., 80 Wn.App. 212, 226, 907 P.2d 1223 (1996)). A plaintiff may establish a prima facie case by either offering direct evidence of an employer’s discriminatory intent, or by satisfying the McDonnell Douglas burden-shifting test that gives rise to an inference of discrimination. Id. at 743-44 (citing Kastanis v. Educ. Emps. Credit Union, 122 Wn.2d 483, 491, 859 P.2d 26, 865 P.2d 507 (1993)).

Direct Evidence Test

The plaintiff can establish a prima facie case under the direct evidence test by offering direct evidence of the following:
  1. The defendant employer acted with a discriminatory motive; and
  2. The discriminatory motivation was a significant or substantial factor in an employment decision.
Id. at 744 (citing Kastanis, 122 Wn.2d at 491) (hyperlink added).

Significant/Substantial Factor

The 2nd second element–discriminatory motivation was a significant or substantial factor in an employment decision–is at issue here. Stated differently, the plaintiff must establish that the discriminatory motive–the 1st element–was a significant or substantial factor in the subject employment decision. Obviously, employee-plaintiffs will be claiming that the subject employment decision was adverse to their interests.

However, an adverse employment action involves a change in employment conditions that is more than an inconvenience or alteration of one’s job responsibilities, such as reducing an employee’s workload and pay. Id. at 748 (citing Campbell v. State, 129 Wn.App. 10, 22, 118 P.3d 888 (2005), review denied, 157 Wn.2d 1002 (2006)). And a demotion or adverse transfer, or a hostile work environment, may amount to an adverse employment action. Id. at 746 (citing Kirby v. City of Tacoma, 124 Wn.App. 454, 465, 98 P.3d 827 (2004), review denied, 154 Wn.2d 1007 (2005)) (emphasis added).


An employee-plaintiff might be able to build a prima facie case of disparate treatment based on a hostile work environment. However, the prima facie case will be incomplete unless the employee-plaintiff is also able to establish the 1st element of the direct evidence test; this article only addresses the 2nd element.   


If you would like to learn more, then consider contacting an experienced Washington State Employment Discrimination Attorney as soon as possible to discuss your case. Please note: the information contained in this article is not offered as legal advice and will not form an attorney-client relationship with either this author or Williams Law Group, PS; please see our DISCLAIMER.

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