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Employment Practices

"Associational" Discrimination Claims a Growing Concern for Employers

Paul Siegel | May 1, 2008

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Row of suits--one standing out

Title VII of the federal Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibits employers from discriminating against employees based on race, color, religion, sex, or national origin.

Title VII also prohibits discrimination against employees who have opposed any practice that is an unlawful employment practice under Title VII, or who have made a charge, testified, assisted, or participated in any manner in an investigation, proceeding, or hearing involving an alleged violation of Title VII. Employers typically know that they may not take adverse action based on their employees' protected characteristics, and that it is impermissible to retaliate against employees based on their own protected activity.

Recent cases, however, demonstrate that Title VII also may provide an employee with the right to allege discrimination or retaliation based not only on his or her own protected characteristics or activity, but also on the employee's "association" with another individual who comes within a protected classification or who has engaged in protected activity.

Holcomb v. Iona College

In Holcomb v. Iona College, 06-3815-cv (2d Cir. Apr. 1, 2008), a Caucasian former assistant basketball coach alleged that he was terminated because his spouse was African-American. Reversing the District Court, the U.S. Court of Appeals in New York agreed that this allegation was sufficient to state a claim of "associational" discrimination under Title VII. The court stated:

[W]here an employee is subjected to adverse action because an employer disapproves of interracial association, the employee suffers discrimination because of the employee's own race.

While acknowledging that the employer asserted that its termination decision was unrelated to the plaintiff's marriage, the court held that the plaintiff pointed to sufficient evidence (if credited) of discriminatory animus, including specific alleged statements of dissatisfaction with the assistant coach's interracial marriage by the administration, for a jury to consider whether "Holcomb has established by a preponderance of the evidence that his termination was the result of racial discrimination." The court's holding also points out that a plaintiff who brings a claim under Title VII does not have to show that discrimination was the employer's sole motive in order to obtain relief.

Thompson v. North American Stainless, L.P.

In a similar vein, in Thompson v. North Am. Stainless, L.P., 07-5040 (6th Cir. Mar. 31, 2008), the U.S. Court of Appeals in Cincinnati ruled that a male employee who was terminated following his coworker fiancée's filing of a discrimination charge with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission [EEOC] asserted a prima facie case of retaliation under Title VII. Allowing that this holding was not consistent with a "literal reading" of Title VII, the court stated that its decision nevertheless was consistent with prior guidance from other circuits and that any contrary finding would "defeat the plain purpose" of the statute.

Burlington Northern v. White

The court relied on prior decisions which interpreted the protections afforded by Title VII expansively, including Burlington Northern & Santa Fe Ry. Co. v. White, 548 U.S. 53 (2006), where the Supreme Court set forth a liberal standard for evaluating whether an employer's action was retaliatory, as well as the EEOC Compliance Manual. (See related article Supreme Court Loosens Standard in Retaliation Lawsuits.) The court noted that the EEOC Compliance Manual:

expressly states that a person claiming retaliation need not be the one who conducted the protected activity. "Title VII … prohibit[s] retaliation against someone so closely related to or associated with the person exercising his or her statutory rights that it would discourage that person from pursuing those rights.

The court further reasoned that a contrary ruling would:

permit employers to retaliate with impunity for opposition to unlawful practices, filing EEOC charges or otherwise participating in such efforts, as long as that retaliation is only directed at family members and friends, and not the individual conducting the protected activity

and that:

tolerance of third-party reprisals would, no less than the tolerance of direct reprisals, deter persons from exercising their protected rights under Title VII.


In evaluating the propriety of disciplinary and/or termination decisions, human resources professionals and in-house counsel must consider the potential viability of "associational" discrimination claims that might be filed as a consequence of their actions. This concern may be particularly acute where spouses, other relatives, and partners are employed by the same employer.

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