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Public employers: Beware association discrimination

by on
in Employment Law,HR Management,Human Resources

Here’s a trap for unwary public employers. Public employees can sue their agencies if they experience discrimination based on their association with persons of different races.

That’s why it’s important to keep things professional and avoid any comments on an employee’s personal life or choice of associates.

Recent case: Andre Lawson, who is black, worked for a county jail. She dated white men and became pregnant with a biracial child. This didn’t sit well with her supervisors who were white males. She claimed they harassed her and ultimately fired her because of her personal relationships across racial lines.

She sued in federal court, alleging that her constitutional rights of free association and free speech had been violated. The supervisors asked the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals to toss out her case, claiming they had immunity.

Not so, concluded the appeals court. Lawson has the constitutional right to associate with people of other races, including the right to bear a biracial child, and her public employer can’t punish her for that. The right to free association includes the right to the creation of interracial families. It sent the case back for a trial.

Lawson will now have a chance to prove the specifics of her case—that the supervisors really did harass her and fire her because of her association with white men. (Lawson v. Sheriff Chris Curry, et al., No. 07-10474, 11th Cir., 2007)

Final note: Although this case applies specifically to public employers, at least one other federal employment law prohibits forms of association discrimination. The ADA makes it illegal to discriminate against an employee because of his or her association with a disabled person. That means you can’t refuse to hire or fire someone because they care for a disabled family member, even if you are concerned about time off or insurance costs.

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