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"Discrimination" simply refers to similarly situated people who are treated differently for an arbitrary reason or no reason. However, what most people do not understand is that it is perfectly lawful for an employer to "discriminate," and indeed it happens all the time. Discrimination is only against the law when the employer's MOTIVATION is a legally protected trait, such as race, religion, gender or age, in which case it becomes actionable under our civil rights laws.
So, for example, if you could prove that you were being paid less BECAUSE you are a female, you would have an viable discrimination claim. However, if it was simply because your employer was friends with the other employees getting paid more, then you would have no recourse. Unfair as the latter reason may be, it is not discrimination that is motivated by a legally protected trait and, while unfair, does not violate any law.
The burden to prove an unlawful motivation falls on the employee. So, you would need affirmative evidence of an unlawful discriminatory intent. Usually, employers are not so foolish as to actually admit they are discriminating based on a legally protected trait, so these cases are usually pieced together through circumstantial evidence. For instance, an employee alleging that they are paid less because they are black may be able to prove their case by showing that they are objectively more qualified than the white employees, who are all paid more for the same work, and that their employer routinely made racist jokes in the workplace.
Ultimately, you need to be able to prove a jury by a preponderance of evidence (meaning it is more likely than not) that BUT FOR your race, religion, gender, etc., you would have been getting paid more. If you believe you can satisfy that burden, your first step would be to file a complaint of discrimination with the EEOC
. The EEOC will investigate your complaint and attempt to mediate a resolution with your employer. If that is not possible, they will either file a lawsuit on your behalf (rather uncommon) or issue you what's called a "right to sue" letter which will authorize you to then file a lawsuit on your own.
See here for more information about the EEOC complaint process: http://www.eeoc.gov/employees/howtofile.cfm
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