There are many types of discrimination claims under federal law and Texas law, including race discrimination, sex discrimination, religious discrimination, age discrimination, disability discrimination, discrimination based on genetic information, and others.  So how do you prove a discrimination claim?

In a perfect world, you would have direct evidence of discrimination.  For example, if your company fires you and tells you that it wants to hire younger workers, you have a clear case of age discrimination.  This sort of case is simple and straightforward.

Most cases, however, involve circumstantial evidence, because employers are usually smart enough not to admit that they are breaking the law.  You will need to show sufficient facts and circumstances to convince a judge or jury that the real reason why you were fired was discrimination.

The courts follow an analytical framework for circumstantial evidence cases that is called the McDonnell Douglas test.  The name comes from a United States Supreme Court case in the early 1970s.  The McDonnell Douglas test includes three stages.

First, you must establish a prima facie case.  This means that you have enough evidence to at least raise an inference of discrimination.  The elements of a prima facie case vary depending on the type of discrimination that you are claiming, but in general there are four elements:

1. You must be a member of a protected class.  One way or another, everyone is a member of a protected class: Caucasians, men, and Christians can all be the targets of so-called "reverse discrimination."  The purpose of this element is to define the kind of discrimination that you are alleging.  For example, if you are claiming disability discrimination, you must be disabled.

2. You must be qualified for the job in question.  Normally, this is not an issue for existing employees.  Instead, it is most commonly an issue in cases involving job applications and denials of promotions: you must be qualified for the job that you are seeking.  In rare cases, this element can be an issue for an existing employee when the qualifications for the job have changed.

3. You must have suffered an adverse employment action.  This includes termination, demotion, pay reductions, or other significant changes in your employment status.  It does not include bad evaluations, write-ups, criticisms, and other things that do not affect your employment.  The employment discrimination laws do not provide a remedy for minor matters that do not actually alter the terms and conditions of your employment.

4. You must show a causal link between the adverse employment action and your protected status.  This is what converts an ordinary termination or demotion into a discrimination case.  Just because you are female and get fired, it does not follow that you can claim sex discrimination.  You must have evidence that you were fired because you are female.  Were you replaced by a man?  Did your supervisor make sexist comments?  Did your company have a pattern of preferring men over women?  Were you fired for doing something that male co-workers also did without getting fired?  Any of these circumstances -- and many others -- can provide evidence of a causal link.

Second, once you have established a prima facie case, the burden shifts to the employer to articulate a justification for what happened to you: a legitimate, non-discriminatory reason.  This can be anything from "reductions in force" to alleged misconduct to alleged poor performance.

Third, if the employer has articulated a legitimate, non-discriminatory reason for the action against you, you must show either (1) that the stated reason is a "pretext" for discrimination (in other words, not the real reason for your termination), or (2) that the employer had "mixed motives" -- even if the stated reason has some validity, discrimination was still a motivating factor.

If you think that you have been a victim of discrimination in the workplace, you should seek professional guidance in deciding whether you can satisfy these legal requirements.

David C. Holmes is a Houston employment lawyer with The Law Offices of David C. Holmes