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Beware: ‘Association discrimination’ is new HR worry

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in Discrimination and Harassment,Employment Law,HR Management,Human Resources,Leaders & Managers,Performance Reviews

You know it’s illegal to retaliate against an employee who has engaged in so-called “protected activity,” such as filing a discrimination complaint.

Now the 2nd Circuit Court of Appeals has taken the concept one step further, ruling that discrimination or retaliation against a third party related to or associated with someone who belongs to a protected class also is illegal under Title VII.

Recent case:
Craig Holcomb, who is white, was an assistant coach at Iona College. He began dating a black woman and ultimately married her. He claimed that once the relationship became public, he began to experience events he attributed to racism. For example, he told the court that his wife and another coach’s black girlfriend were banned from some fundraising events.

When the college fired Holcomb for alleged poor performance, he sued, alleging race discrimination. But the college argued that Holcomb couldn’t use his wife’s race to get into court on a Title VII race claim.

The 2nd Circuit Court of Appeals disagreed. It wrote that an employer violates Title VII when it “takes action against an employee because of the employee’s association with a person of another race.”

The court said Holcomb didn’t have to prove that his interracial marriage was the sole reason he was fired—only that race “played an illegitimate role in the college’s decision.” (Holcomb v. Iona College, No. 06-3815, 2nd Cir., 2008)

Final note: Association discrimination cases are on the rise. Other circuits have recently decided similar cases, including one involving association with a disabled person and another involving retaliation for supporting a race discrimination charge levied by a co-worker’s fiancée.

In both cases, the court focused on the idea that allowing association discrimination would deter discrimination complaints. If members of a protected class know that their friends or spouses might be punished if they file a complaint, that might deter them from complaining in the first place.

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