It is against the law for an employer to discriminate against you based on your national origin or perceived national origin. If you are discriminated against based on your national origin or place of birth, you can file a lawsuit against your employer for damages.
Here are four key things to know:
- “National origin” refers to your place of birth or ethnic heritage.
- National origin discrimination violates both California and federal laws.
- You cannot be retaliated against for reporting workplace discrimination.
- Discrimination victims may be able to recover money damages as well as equitable remedies (including being rehired or promoted).
Below, our California labor and employment law attorneys discuss the following frequently asked questions about lawsuits for national origin discrimination against California workers:
- 1. Can an employer in California refuse to hire me because of where I was born?
- 2. What is national origin discrimination?
- 3. How do I know if I was discriminated against because of my national origin?
- 4. What should I do if other co-workers are harassing me about where I was born?
- 5. Should I file a workplace discrimination complaint with the EEOC?
- 6. Can I sue my employer for national origin discrimination in California?
- 7. What are my damages in an employment discrimination lawsuit in California?
- 8. Can my boss fire me for reporting discrimination against another employee?
- 9. Can I be fired for filing a workplace discrimination or harassment lawsuit?
- Additional resources
If you have further questions after reading this article, we invite you to contact us at Shouse Law Group.
An employer in California cannot refuse to hire you because of where you were born or based on your ethnicity. Discrimination in employment based on national origin is a violation of California state and federal law.
Under the California Fair Employment and Housing Act (FEHA), it is illegal for an employer to discriminate against you based on national origin.1 Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 also protects applicants and employees from employment discrimination based on national origin.2
Employers are prohibited from hiring only U.S. citizens except where required by
- regulation, or
- government contract.
Policies for immigrants and non-English speakers
If you are an immigrant, an employer cannot refuse to hire you if you have lawful documentation that establishes your employment eligibility.
In limited situations, an employer can require you to speak fluent English if English fluency is necessary to perform the job effectively. However, an employer cannot have an “English-only” policy unless it is needed for the safe or efficient operation of the business and is not for discriminatory purposes.
National origin discrimination in employment is treating you negatively because you are from a certain country or appear to be from a certain ethnic background.
It is against California (FEHA) and federal law for an employer to do any of the following based on your national origin or place of birth:
- Refuse to hire you
- Refuse to promote you when merited
- Refuse to select you for a training program
- Demote you
- Fire you
- Pay you less
- Reduce your salary
- Deny equal pay
- Deny a promotion
- Deny reinstatement
- Deny benefits
- Force you to quit
- Harass you
- Assign different duties
- Discriminate against you in any way3
The laws against national origin discrimination are not limited to employers, they also apply to unions and labor organizations, which are prohibited from excluding, expelling, or restricting membership to you based on national origin.4 National origin discrimination prohibitions also apply to
- apprenticeship training programs5 and
- employment agencies. 6
What national origin comprises
National origin is a broad term that refers to your place of birth or ethnic heritage. This includes:
- Physical, cultural, or linguistic characteristics associated with a national origin group
- Marriage to or association with a national origin group
- Tribal affiliation
- Membership with an organization that promotes the interests of a national origin group
- Participation in schools associated with a national origin group
- Attendance in churches, mosques, temples, or religious institutions associated with a national origin group
- Name associated with a national origin group7
Although the term “national origin” refers to nations or countries, national origin discrimination can also refer to geographical regions, ethnicities, or languages. In the United States, national origin discrimination can even refer to discrimination against Native Americans and tribal associations.
Place of birth
National origin can refer to your place of birth, regardless of citizenship, language, or ethnicity.
Place of birth can determine citizenship; however, citizenship may be determined by a number of factors. For example, many U.S. citizens are born outside of the United States if they are born to a parent who is a U.S. citizen.
If you are born in the United States (or one of its territories), you are a U.S citizen by birth. However, some employers may treat you negatively if you were born to non-citizens, or are part of another ethnicity, even if you were born in the United States.
Ethnic background generally refers to a group of people who have the same
- culture, or
- area of origin.
This is compared to race, which generally refers to your physical characteristics.
Example: Hutu and Tutsi people in Rwanda may be from a similar racial background, but they generally represent different ethnic groups. However, employers who discriminate against others often confuse race, ethnicity, and national origin.
Perceived national origin
The laws against discrimination based on national origin also apply to a perceived national origin. It is not a defense to discrimination if the employer was wrong about your national origin.
Example: An employer may refuse to give a job to a female applicant with a headscarf because the employer believes the applicant must be from the Middle East and the employer doesn’t want to have anyone from the Middle East working in the company.
If the applicant turns out to be a U.S. citizen of German ancestry, the employer may still have violated the laws against employment discrimination based on the applicant’s perceived national origin.
National origin of spouse, family, or associates
Employment discrimination can also affect you if you have a spouse from a different country or ethnicity. An employer cannot discriminate against you because of your spouse’s national origin, perceived or actual.
Similarly, an employer cannot discriminate against you if you associate with people from a certain nation or ethnic group.
It is not always easy to tell if you are being discriminated against in the workplace. Most workplace discrimination is subtle or never admitted to openly.
Employers are generally aware that outward discrimination could expose the employer to a lawsuit. However, there may be signs of discrimination because of your national origin.
Improper questions during an interview or application process may be a sign of potential national origin discrimination violations. This includes questions about your:
- Parents’ ancestry
- Applicant’s spouse’s ancestry
- Cultural heritage
- Language ability, if not relevant to the job
Other signs of discrimination
Other signs of possible discrimination may be:
- Sudden changes in job performance reviews
- Exclusion from meetings and events
- Change in work duties or workload increases
- Reduced hours or reduced pay
- Different rule enforcement involving workers of different backgrounds
- Failing to put a stop to racism or ethnic jokes in the workplace
- Making fun of your accent or stereotypes about people from a certain country
- Failing to consider you if you have an ethnic-sounding name
In some cases, an employer may be of the same national origin as you. However, even if your employer is from the same national origin, it is still illegal for them to discriminate against you based on national origin.
It is wrong for co-workers, supervisors, and other employees to engage in workplace harassment based on your perceived national origin. This includes:
- You experiencing unwelcome comments or conduct at work (workplace bullying);
- The harassment is based on your national origin or ethnicity; and
- The harassment is pervasive or severe enough to alter the conditions of employment and create a hostile work environment.8
Isolated incidents of teasing, tasteless jokes, or insensitive remarks generally do not rise to the level of workplace harassment. Instead, the offending behavior must generally happen frequently or be extremely abusive in nature.
Your employer’s responsibilities
If you are being harassed based on national origin by co-workers, or someone other than a supervisor, then you may be able to sue your employer for workplace harassment if your employer behaved negligently. This generally means that your employer
- needs to have known about the harassment and
- failed to take reasonable steps to prevent or stop the harassment.
National origin discrimination in the workplace is a violation of
- California state law and
- federal law.
The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) enforces federal national origin and ethnic discrimination laws. The California Civil Rights Department (CRD) – formerly the Department of Fair Employment and Housing (DFEH) – is the state agency that handles complaints of national origin discrimination.
In most cases, California law offers broader protections for anti-discrimination cases than federal law. For this reason, you may prefer to file a national origin discrimination complaint with the CRD rather than the EEOC.
If you want to file a lawsuit against your employer for national origin discrimination in California, you are usually required to exhaust all administrative remedies first. This may mean you have to go through the CRD complaint process before you can file a lawsuit.
However, your attorney may
- file a complaint with the CRD and
- obtain an immediate “right to sue” letter without waiting for the administrative process first.9
Filing a complaint with CRD
You can file a national origin or ancestry discrimination complaint directly with the CRD. In general, you must submit a pre-complaint inquiry within three years of the last incident of
- harassment, or
However, there are exceptions to this time limit, such as where you did not learn about the unlawful practice until after the expiration of three years.10
The complaint can be filed
- by phone, or
- by using the form from the CRD website.
The CRD’s pre-complaint inquiry
The pre-complaint inquiry will initiate an intake interview with the CRD and help determine whether a complaint can be accepted for investigation.
An investigator will contact you within 60 days and discuss the details of the alleged discrimination or harassment.
- If the CRD representative determines the state will not handle the complaint, the matter will be dismissed, and you have the immediate right to sue your employer in court.
- If the representative accepts the pre-complaint inquiry, a complaint will be prepared for your signature and delivered to the employer.
The complaint can also be dual-filed with the EEOC at this point.
Negotiation, investigation, and mediation
After your employer responds to the complaint, the CRD will review the answer. In many cases, the CRD will offer dispute resolution services, which provide a way for you and your employer to negotiate a resolution to the complaint. If the complaint cannot be resolved through negotiations, the CRD will initiate an investigation.
A national origin discrimination investigation will determine whether there was a violation of California law.
- If the investigation finds there was a violation, the case will go to the CRD Legal Division.
- If there is no violation, the case will be closed. If the case is closed, you still have the immediate right to take your case to court.
The CRD Legal Division generally requires the parties to go through mediation. Mediation is a form of alternative dispute resolution where a neutral mediator helps the parties come together to find a mutually agreeable solution.
- In a successful mediation, the employer and you will come up with a way to settle the dispute, without leaving it up to the courts to decide the outcome.
- If you cannot settle the dispute through mediation, the CRD could file a lawsuit on behalf of you against the employer.
If the CRD does not pursue the claim, it will close the investigation, and you have the immediate right to file a lawsuit against your employer.
Under California law, it is a civil right to have the opportunity to seek and hold employment without discrimination based on national origin. If you are discriminated against because of your ancestry or national origin, you can file a lawsuit against your employers for unlawful discrimination.11
You generally have to file a complaint with the CRD or EEOC before you can file a lawsuit in civil court. This requires obtaining a “right to sue” notice before your case can be taken to court.
“Right to sue” notice
You can request an immediate right to sue notice, without having to go through a complete CRD or EEOC investigation. However, if you receive a Right-to-Sue notice, your complaint will not be investigated by CRD. Alternatively, you may also wait until the CRD dismisses your case or finds no violation before taking your case to court.12
According to the CRD, proceeding directly to court without an investigation by the CRD is only advisable if you have an attorney. Your attorney can obtain a right to sue notice and file your case in California Superior Court
- in the county where the discrimination occurred, or
- other relevant county.13
Litigation and settlement
The complaint will be served upon
- your employer and
- anyone else named in the lawsuit as defendants.
The defendants will respond to the complaint with a formal answer responding to the allegations, and the case may proceed through litigation. At any point before the end of a trial, the employer and you can negotiate a settlement and settle the case out of court.
The damages available in an employment discrimination lawsuit will depend on the type of discrimination involved and the extent of the harm to you. This may include
- money damages,
- equitable remedies, and
- punitive damages.
Money damages from national origin employment discrimination may include losses from:
- Back pay (with interest)
- Front pay
- Higher income from a promotion
- Higher income from a raise
- Pension benefits
- Bonus payments
- Pain and suffering
- Emotional distress
If you have suffered employment discrimination or harassment based on national origin, you can also seek to have your employer reimburse your expenses for
- attorney’s fees and
- court costs.14
A successful lawsuit can also result in equitable remedies. If you have been fired based on your national origin, the court can require your employer to rehire you. Other equitable remedies may include
- hiring or
- a promotion.
However, when you have been harassed or discriminated against, you may not necessarily want to return to that hostile workplace.
In some cases, you may also be eligible to receive punitive damages. Punitive damages are a way to
- punish the behavior of the wrongdoer and
- deter your employer or other employers from engaging in similar wrongful behavior in the future.
You cannot be retaliated against for reporting workplace discrimination against a co-worker or other employee.15 The FEHA protects you if you are retaliated against for:
- Opposing workplace harassment
- Opposing national origin discrimination against other employees
- Reporting national origin discrimination or workplace harassment
- Assisting with CRD investigations or government inquiries
If your employer retaliates against you for reporting FEHA violations or other employment law violations, you may be able to
- file a complaint with the CRD or
- file a lawsuit against your employer for retaliation or wrongful termination.
An employer cannot fire you for filing a workplace discrimination or harassment lawsuit. Firing you for filing a workplace discrimination claim
- is a retaliatory action, and
- may be considered “wrongful termination.”16
You may be able to file a lawsuit against your employer for wrongful termination.
For more information, refer to the following:
- National Origin Description – Overview by the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC).
- National Original Discrimination – Discussion by the U.S. Department of Labor.
- Federal Protections Against National Origin Discrimination – Summary by the Civil Rights Division of the U.S. Department of Justice.
- Back to Know Your Rights: Race, Ethnicity, or National Origin-Based Discrimination – Guide by the ACLU.
- National Origin – Discussion of employee protections by worker.gov.
- Fair Employment and Housing Act 12940 — Unlawful Practices. (“It is an unlawful employment practice, unless based upon a bona fide occupational qualification, or, except where based upon applicable security regulations established by the United States or the State of California: (a) For an employer, because of the race, religious creed, color, national origin, ancestry, physical disability, mental disability, medical condition, genetic information, marital status, sex, gender, gender identity, gender expression, age, sexual orientation, or military and veteran status of any person, to refuse to hire or employ the person or to refuse to select the person for a training program leading to employment, or to bar or to discharge the person from employment or from a training program leading to employment, or to discriminate against the person in compensation or in terms, conditions, or privileges of employment.”). See for example Rehmani v. Superior Court (Court of Appeal of California, Sixth Appellate District, 2012) 204 Cal. App. 4th 945; Jie v. Liang Tai Knitwear Co. (Court of Appeal of California, Second Appellate District, Division Three, 2001) 89 Cal. App. 4th 654. See also Acosta v. Nat’l Union of Healthcare Workers, Inc. (Court of Appeal of California, First Appellate District, Division Five, 2023) A162448.
- Title VII, 42 U.S.C. § 2000e-2, Section 703 — Unlawful Employment Practices. (“(a) Employer practices. It shall be an unlawful employment practice for an employer – (1) to fail or refuse to hire or to discharge any individual, or otherwise to discriminate against any individual with respect to his compensation, terms, conditions, or privileges of employment, because of such individual’s race, color, religion, sex, or national origin; or (2) to limit, segregate, or classify his employees or applicants for employment in any way which would deprive or tend to deprive any individual of employment opportunities or otherwise adversely affect his status as an employee, because of such individual’s race, color, religion, sex, or national origin.”)
- Fair Employment and Housing Act 12940, footnote 1 above.
- Fair Employment and Housing Act 12940 — Unlawful Practices. (“It is an unlawful employment practice, unless based upon a bona fide occupational qualification, or, except where based upon applicable security regulations established by the United States or the State of California: (b) For a labor organization, because of the race, religious creed, color, national origin, ancestry, physical disability, mental disability, medical condition, genetic information, marital status, sex, gender, gender identity, gender expression, age, sexual orientation, or military and veteran status of any person, to exclude, expel, or restrict from its membership the person, or to provide only second-class or segregated membership or to discriminate against any person because of the race, religious creed, color, national origin, ancestry, physical disability, mental disability, medical condition, genetic information, marital status, sex, gender, gender identity, gender expression, age, sexual orientation, or military and veteran status of the person in the election of officers of the labor organization or in the selection of the labor organization’s staff or to discriminate in any way against any of its members or against any employer or against any person employed by an employer.”)
- Fair Employment and Housing Act 12940 — Unlawful Practices. (“It is an unlawful employment practice, unless based upon a bona fide occupational qualification, or, except where based upon applicable security regulations established by the United States or the State of California: (c) For any person to discriminate against any person in the selection, termination, training, or other terms or treatment of that person in any apprenticeship training program, any other training program leading to employment, an unpaid internship, or another limited duration program to provide unpaid work experience for that person because of the race, religious creed, color, national origin, ancestry, physical disability, mental disability, medical condition, genetic information, marital status, sex, gender, gender identity, gender expression, age, sexual orientation, or military and veteran status of the person discriminated against.”)
- Fair Employment and Housing Act 12940 — Unlawful Practices. (“It is an unlawful employment practice, unless based upon a bona fide occupational qualification, or, except where based upon applicable security regulations established by the United States or the State of California: (d) For any employer or employment agency to print or circulate or cause to be printed or circulated any publication, or to make any nonjob-related inquiry of an employee or applicant, either verbal or through use of an application form, that expresses, directly or indirectly, any limitation, specification, or discrimination as to race, religious creed, color, national origin, ancestry, physical disability, mental disability, medical condition, genetic information, marital status, sex, gender, gender identity, gender expression, age, sexual orientation, or military and veteran status, or any intent to make any such limitation, specification, or discrimination. This part does not prohibit an employer or employment agency from inquiring into the age of an applicant, or from specifying age limitations, where the law compels or provides for that action.”)
- California Code of Regulations 11027.1 — Definitions. (“(a) “National origin” includes but is not limited to, the individual’s or ancestors’ actual or perceived: (1) physical, cultural or linguistic characteristics associated with a national origin group; (2) marriage to or association with persons of a national origin group; (3) tribal affiliation; (4) membership in or association with an organization identified with or seeking to promote the interests of a national origin group; (5) attendance or participation in schools, churches, temples, mosques, or other religious institutions generally used by persons of a national origin group; and (6) name that is associated with a national origin group.”)
- Hughes v. Pair (2009) 46 Cal.4th 1035, 1042. (“To prevail on a hostile work environment claim under California’s FEHA, an employee must show that the harassing conduct was “severe enough or sufficiently pervasive to alter the conditions of employment and create a work environment that qualifies as hostile or abusive to employees.”)
- Fair Employment and Housing Act 12960. (“(b) Any person claiming to be aggrieved by an alleged unlawful practice may file with the department a verified complaint, in writing, that shall state the name and address of the person, employer, labor organization, or employment agency alleged to have committed the unlawful practice complained of, and that shall set forth the particulars thereof and contain other information as may be required by the department. The director or his or her authorized representative may in like manner, on his or her own motion, make, sign, and file a complaint.”)
- Fair Employment and Housing Act 12960; California Assembly Bill 9 (2019).
- Fair Employment and Housing Act 12921. (“(a) The opportunity to seek, obtain, and hold employment without discrimination because of race, religious creed, color, national origin, ancestry, physical disability, mental disability, medical condition, genetic information, marital status, sex, gender, gender identity, gender expression, age, sexual orientation, or military and veteran status is hereby recognized as and declared to be a civil right.”)
- Fair Employment and Housing Act 12965 — Unlawful Practices. (“(b) If a civil action is not brought by the department within 150 days after the filing of a complaint, or if the department earlier determines that no civil action will be brought, the department shall promptly notify, in writing, the person claiming to be aggrieved that the department shall issue, on his or her request, the right-to-sue notice.”)
- Fair Employment and Housing Act 12965 — Unlawful Practices. (“(b) … The superior courts of the State of California shall have jurisdiction of those actions, and the aggrieved person may file in these courts. An action may be brought in any county in the state in which the unlawful practice is alleged to have been committed, in the county in which the records relevant to the practice are maintained and administered, or in the county in which the aggrieved person would have worked or would have had access to the public accommodation but for the alleged unlawful practice, but if the defendant is not found within any of these counties, an action may be brought within the county of the defendant’s residence or principal office.”)
- Fair Employment and Housing Act 12965 — Unlawful Practices. (“(b) … In civil actions brought under this section, the court, in its discretion, may award to the prevailing party, including the department, reasonable attorney’s fees and costs, including expert witness fees.”)
- Government Code 12940 GC — Employers, labor organizations, employment agencies and other persons; unlawful employment practice; exceptions FEHA wrongful termination / retaliation. (“It is an unlawful employment practice, unless based upon a bona fide occupational qualification, or, except where based upon applicable security regulations established by the United States or the State of California: . . . (h) For any employer, labor organization, employment agency, or person to discharge, expel, or otherwise discriminate against any person because the person has opposed any practices forbidden under this part or because the person has filed a complaint, testified, or assisted in any proceeding under this part.”)
- California Code of Regulations (CCR) tit. 2, § 11021. (“a) FEHA Retaliation Generally. It is unlawful for an employer or other covered entity to demote, suspend, reduce, fail to hire or consider for hire, fail to give equal consideration in making employment decisions, fail to treat impartially in the context of any recommendations for subsequent employment that the employer or other covered entity may make, adversely affect working conditions or otherwise deny any employment benefit to an individual because that individual has opposed practices prohibited by the Act or has filed a complaint, testified, assisted or participated in any manner in an investigation, proceeding, or hearing conducted by the Council or Department or its staff. (1) Opposition to practices prohibited by the Act includes, but is not limited to: (A) Seeking the advice of the Department or Council, whether or not a complaint is filed, and if a complaint is filed, whether or not the complaint is ultimately sustained; (B) Assisting or advising any person in seeking the advice of the Department or Council, whether or not a complaint is filed, and if a complaint is filed, whether or not the complaint is ultimately sustained; (C) Opposing employment practices that an individual reasonably believes to exist and believes to be a violation of the Act; (D) Participating in an activity that is perceived by the employer or other covered entity as opposition to discrimination, whether or not so intended by the individual expressing the opposition; or (E) Contacting, communicating with or participating in the proceeding of a local human rights or civil rights agency regarding employment discrimination on a basis enumerated in the Act.”)