Title VII prohibits discrimination on the basis of an individual's race, color, national origin, sex, and religion. An individual need not be a member of a protected class to be protected; discrimination based on an individual's association with a member of a protected class is also off-limits.
Typically, the association is a familial or romantic relationship. For example, a white employee won $150,000 after she was harassed for dating a black man and was told by company officials that her relationship would not be good for the company's image. (Long & Wilson v. Brentwood Healthcare Ltd., D.C. TX, No. 3:06-CV-01780, 2008)
However, the association does not have to be that close or intimate in order to be covered. One company tried to argue that only a significant association — one that extends outside the workplace — can give rise to an association discrimination claim. In this case, three white employees claimed that they were discriminated against because of their friendships with, and advocacy for, African-American co-workers. The district court agreed with the company and dismissed the case because the association between the white and black employees was nothing more than a casual, friendly relationship that commonly develops among co-workers, but that tends to be limited to the workplace.
On appeal, the 6th Circuit revived the case. "The absence of a relationship outside of work should not immunize the conduct of harassers who target an employee because she associates with African-American co-workers." The degree of association is irrelevant, as long as the employees show that they were discriminated against at work because they associated with members of a protected class.
Only harassment that specifically targets those who associate with or advocate for African Americans can result in an actionable claim. Since only a few of the discriminatory comments or actions were directed at two of the employees, the court rejected their claims. The third employee got the green light because she established that she was subjected to regular, offensive comments about her relationship with an African-American co-worker and was prevented from applying for job advancements. (Barrett v. Whirlpool, 6th Cir., No. 08-5307, 2009)
While the degree of association does not affect whether one is eligible to file a Title VII lawsuit in the first place, it may correlate with whether one is able to establish a valid discrimination claim.