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Associational Discrimination

Published by on May 9, 2008

Three recent decisions by the Courts of Appeals offer the opportunity to discuss discrimination or retaliation based on a person’s association with another person.  The first is Holcomb v. Iona College, No. 06-3815 (2d Cir. 2008).  The opinion can be found here.  The second is Thompson v. North American Stainless, LP, No. 07-5040 (6th Cir. […]

Three recent decisions by the Courts of Appeals offer the opportunity to discuss discrimination or retaliation based on a person’s association with another person.  The first is Holcomb v. Iona College, No. 06-3815 (2d Cir. 2008).  The opinion can be found here.  The second is Thompson v. North American Stainless, LP, No. 07-5040 (6th Cir. 2008).  The opinion can be found here.  The third is Trujillo v. Pacificorp, No. 06-8074 (10th Cir. 2008).  The opinion can be found here.  While the Trujillo decision applies the express associational discrimination provision of the Americans with Disabilities Act, the other two decisions interpret Title VII to include such protection in the absence of an express provision.

The Holcomb decision involves a white former employee of a college athletic department who sued the college alleging that his termination was based on his race, namely, his marriage to an African American woman.  On the legal issue of whether this stated a cognizable claim under Title VII, the court stated:

“Holcomb alleges that he was discriminated against, not solely because of his own race, but as a result of his marriage to a black woman.  This Court has never ruled on the question of whether Title VII applies in these circumstances.  We resolve that question today, and hold that an employer may violate Title VII if it takes action against an employee because of the employee’s association with a person of another race.”

The court noted that it was joining the Fifth, Sixth and Eleventh Circuits in so holding.

The Thompson decision involved an employee who was terminated after his fiancee, who worked for the same company, filed a gender discrimination charge with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.  The court summarized its holding as follows:

“Shortly after Appellant Eric Thompson’s fiancee filed a discrimination charge against their common employer, the Appellee, Thompson was terminated.  The parties to this appeal ask whether the anti-retaliation provisions in Title VII of the Civil Rights Act protect a related or associated third party from retaliation under such circumstances.  We hold that they do….”

The court found support for this conclusion in the Supreme Court’s Burlington Northern decision (548 US 53), which defined a materially adverse retaliatory action as one that “well might have dissuaded a reasonable worker from making or supporting a charge of discrimination.”  A dissenting judge disagreed, finding no basis for a third-party retaliation claim such as this.

The Trujillo case involved associational discrimination under the Americans with Disabilities Act, which has an express associational discrimination provision unlike Title VII.  Workplace Prof Blog has a discussion of the case here.

These three decisions were issued within a one month period in different circuits.  Do they point to a widening of the scope of Title VII by the courts?  The Sixth Circuit defended its decision by noting that earlier precedent supported such a claim and they had not seen a flood of new associational claims.  Do three appellate court decisions in a month suggest otherwise?

The practical import of these decisions is that human resources professionals and employment lawyers need to be aware of the concept of associational discrimination outside of the ADA context and include the possibility of such claims in their analysis of particular situations.

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