Disparate Treatment via Hostile Work Environment

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 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 (please review our Disclaimer, Terms of Use & Privacy Notice before proceeding).

Washington Law Against Discrimination

Under the Washington Law Against Discrimination, 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. RCW 49.60.180(2). These categories are also known as protected classes.

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).

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 (1st element) was a significant or substantial factor in the subject employment decision/action. And employee-plaintiffs must establish that the subject employment action 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).


Thus, I believe that 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 employment discrimination attorney to discuss your case. 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.