National origin isn’t just about nationality

Title VII of the Civil Rights Act bars discrimination based on national origin. What constitutes national origin is broader than you might assume.

According to the EEOC, national origin can be defined as the place where someone or her ancestors came from. But national origin is also a factor if someone has the “physical, cultural or linguistic characteristics of a national-origin group.”

Thus, presumably someone who has lived in the United States all her life—but whose parents came from Mexico and who speaks English with an accent reflecting her Mexican roots—would be of Mexican national origin. Thus, national origin isn’t always about a particular country.

As the following case shows, courts sometimes drill down fairly deeply to determine the national origin an employee or applicant can claim.

Recent case:
Irina Dolgaleva sued a school district when she didn’t get a teaching job. Dolgaleva is from Russia and claimed she had been rejected in favor of an applicant from Belarus, a former Soviet republic.

The school district argued that there couldn’t have been any national-origin discrimination since Belarus was part of the Soviet Union for many years, as was Russia. It argued that both applicants had the same national origin. It said the court should reject Dolgaleva’s lawsuit, since applicants can claim national-origin bias only if they can show they were rejected in favor of someone of another national origin.

The court didn’t buy the argument, concluding that, while Belarus was once a part of the Soviet Union, that didn’t mean everyone whose family came from somewhere in the Soviet Union was of the same national origin. (Dolgaleva v. Virginia Beach City Public Schools, No. 08-1515, 4th Cir., 2010)