While I was on trial last month, a Second Circuit decision on Associational Discrimination slipped courtesy morgue file "interracial"by.  Fortunately, the Delaware Employment Law Blog picked up the slack here.

The obvious question that arises first is: What is Associational Discrimination?  Well, most discrimination cases arise when the employee has a "protected characteristic" such as his or her race or gender, and has had some type of employment action taken against him or her. But suppose the employer took action not because of the color of the employee’s skin, but because of the color of the skin of  the employee’s spouse.  That, the Second Circuit, has ruled, may violate federal anti-discrimination laws. 

The case, Holcomb v. Iona College (decided April 1), arises from the firing of the former assistant basketball coach at Iona College.  The school allegedly fired him for performance reasons.  He claimed that various college officials made derogatory comments about his wife — who is Black. 

The court’s discussion set forth the associational discrimination analysis. Here is the three-part review, as summarized by the Delaware blog:

  1. Protected Class. The Court held that Holcomb was a member of a "protected class" under Title VII. Although Holcomb was not Black, his wife was, and there was evidence that his interracial marriage was the reason for his termination.
  2. Interracial Association. The Court reasoned that, "where an employee is subjected to an adverse action because an employer disapproves of interracial association, the employee suffers discrimination because of the employee’s own race." All the district judges in this circuit to consider the question, including the district court in this case, have reached that conclusion."
  3. Pretext Evidence. As noted above, there was plenty of evidence from which the Court could conclude that the reasons given for Holcomb’s termination were a mere pretext for race-based discrimination. Another piece of evidence to support Holcomb’s claim was that O’Driscoll, the white staff member who replaced Holcomb, was the only white member of the staff without a Black girlfriend or wife.

What’s the takeaway from this case? Claims based on associational discrimination represent another type of claim that can be raised.  Is it the start of a trend? It’s really much too early to tell, but other circuits have recently ruled on the theory as well. Employers should be sensitive to this type of claim.  With interracial marriages and interfaith marriages becoming increasingly common, derogatory remarks about employees’ spouses should be and must remain be off-limits at work.  Maintaining and enforcing sensible human resource policies may be all that’s required for most companies, but each company should consider making its own assessment about whether associational discrimination claims are a higher risk to them.. 

(H/T Wait a Second).