Disparate Impact vs. Disparate Treatment Discrimination

Gregory A. Williams, Esq.

Attorney-Owner at Williams Law Group
Admissions: U.S. Supreme Court; U.S. Court of Federal Claims; U.S. District Court Western Dist of WA; all WA State Courts.

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By Gregory Williams, Esq. | Under the Washington Law Against Discrimination (WLAD), What is the difference between disparate treatment and disparate impact discrimination? Here’s my point of view (please review our Disclaimer, Terms of Use & Privacy Notice before proceeding).


Under 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, sex, marital status, sexual orientation, race, creed, color, national origin, honorably discharged veteran or military status, or 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.

Discrimination may occur because of the disparate treatment of persons or because actions result in a disparate impact upon different people. E-Z Loader Boat Trailers, Inc. v. Travelers Indem. Co., 106 Wn.2d 901, 909, 726 P.2d 439 (Wash. 1986).


To prove “disparate treatment” a plaintiff must show that an employer treated an individual employee or group of employees differently because of sex, race, age, religion or some other improper differentiation. Id. (citing International Bhd. of Teamsters v. United States, 431 U.S. 324, 97 S.Ct. 1843, 52 L.Ed.2d 396 (1977); [s]ee also Texas Dept. of Community Affairs v. Burdine, 450 U.S. 248, 256, 101 S.Ct. 1089, 1095, 67 L.Ed.2d 207 (1981)). This is what most people envision when they think of employment discrimination. But discrimination can also occur in the form of disparate impact.


To prove a “disparate impact” from discrimination upon a person or group of persons, a plaintiff must show that an employment practice, which was facially neutral, resulted in discrimination against persons because of their age, sex or other improper distinction. Id. (citing Griggs v. Duke Power Co., 401 U.S. 424, 91 S.Ct. 849, 28 L.Ed.2d 158 (1971). See Fahn v. Cowlitz Cy, 93 Wash.2d 368, 610 P.2d 857 (1980); Stieler v. Spokane Sch. Dist. 81, 88 Wash.2d 68, 558 P.2d 198 (1977)).

For example, in Kumar v. Gate Gourmet, Inc., 180 Wn.2d 481, 325 P.3d 193 (Wash. 2014), an employer’s meal policy that was based on security concerns barred employees from bringing in their own food for lunch; and it required employees to eat only employer-provided food. However, the policy forced a group of plaintiff-employees to either work without food or eat food that violated their religious beliefs (a protected class). The plaintiffs subsequently filed suit and alleged that the employer maintained a facially neutral meal policy that fell more harshly on those within a protected class; and the court found a viable claim of disparate impact discrimination reversing the trial court’s previous dismissal and remanding the case for further proceeding consistent with the opinion.


Ultimately, there is a tangible difference between disparate treatment and disparate impact discrimination. If you would like to learn more, then consider contacting an experienced employment discrimination attorney to discuss your case as soon as possible. This article is not offered as legal advice and will not establish an attorney-client relationship with Williams Law Group, Law Office of Gregory A. Williams, P.S., Inc., or the author of this article. Please read our Disclaimer, Terms of Use & Privacy notice.