It can be very hard to prove a discrimination case. As if it were not difficult enough to show what motivated an employer's decision, employers often come to court equipped with detailed information about the employee's entire tenure at the company. Any history of discipline or disagreement with a supervisor can become the employer's excuse for its decision, making it that much harder to prove whether the real motivation was illegal discrimination.
One California case illustrates how this works in many wrongful termination lawsuits.
A California scientist claims that a NASA laboratory fired him because of his belief in intelligent design. According to his lawsuit against NASA, his supervisors terminated him after 15 years of employment because he talked about his religious beliefs in the workplace, including intelligent design and his support for California's Proposition 8. The employer allegedly demoted him in 2009 and then fired him two years later - all on the basis of religion.
Because it is illegal to fire an employee because of his or her religious beliefs, the scientist sued NASA for wrongful termination.
In a recent hearing, however, NASA used the employee's long history at the laboratory against him. The laboratory's lawyers argued that the scientist got into trouble because he was disruptive and combative with other employees and supervisors. They also said that the scientist neglected his ongoing skills-training, even after supervisors warned him that he was falling behind expectations.
This is an example of a common employer strategy. When faced with charges of discrimination, employers can point to one of any number of legitimate reasons for taking an adverse action against a worker. Since California generally follows the at-will rule, terminations are usually lawful unless they involve discrimination or another protection. So by pointing to any kind of sub-par encounter with an employee, supervisors can effectively argue that they did nothing wrong.
It remains to be seen whether this case actually involves this kind of tactic or whether the employee actually was fired for legitimate reasons. Regardless, the case emphasizes the need to come equipped for a difficult fight.
Experienced employment discrimination lawyers know how to push back on these arguments and can convince a judge or jury that the employer is covering up unlawful and discriminatory motives.
Source: ABC News, "Judge Backs NASA Lab in Work Discrimination Case," Nov. 2, 2012