Associational Discrimination Litigation

Historically, employment discrimination litigation arose from a member of a "protected group" making a claim that (s)he was discriminated against on the basis of race, ethnicity, national origin, gender, age, or disability.  These forms of discrimination are prohibited by Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, the Equal Pay Act, the Age Discrimination in Employment Act, and the Americans With Disabilities Act.  Recently, there have been some court decisions expanding the definition of who is "protected" to include individuals associated with protected group members.  

One such decision was issued by the Second Circuit in Holcomb v. Iona College.  This case arose from the firing of an assistant basketball coach at Iona College.  Iona College claims that Holcomb was fired for performance reasons.  Holcomb alleges that college officials made derogatory comments about his wife, who is African American.  The Court found that:
(a) Holcomb was a member of a "protected class" under Title VII.  Although Holcomb himself was not a racial minority, his wife was, and there was evidence that his interracial marriage was the underlying reason for his termination;
(b) 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";
(c) The Court concluded that the reasons given for Holcomb's termination were a pretext for race-based discrimination.  

In the Sixth Circuit, three women alleged that they were discriminated against on the basis of their friendship with, and advocacy for, African American co-workers.  The Court held "If a plaintiff shows that (1) she was discriminated against at work (2) because she associated with members of a protected class, then the degree of association is irrelevant."  The Court did not require a significant degree of association to state a claim of associational discriminaton under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.  Additionally, the Court held "[O]nly harassment that specifically targeted those who associated with and advocated for African-Americans will result in an actionable hostile work environment claim for such individuals."

In a decision by the federal appeals court in Chicago, a plaintiff alleged that her employer violated the Americans With Disabilities Act when the employer fired her in order to avoid paying for substantial medical costs being incurred by her husband under the employer's self-insured health plan.  The Seventh Circuit held that "an employee, fired because her spouse has a disability that is costly to the employer (i.e., he is covered by the company's health plan) is within the intended scope of the 'associational discrimination' section of the ADA."

Other courts, however, have been reluctant to apply associational discrimination claims in the context of gender discrimination.   For example, a male manager sued his employer for associational discrimination claiming he was fired because he was male and he defended his girlfriend, who was a co-worker, from alleged sexual harassment.  The Federal District Court in the Eastern District of Pennsylvania granted summary judgment to the employer, stating that "being in a relationship with a person of a different gender who may have been subjected to harassment is not sufficient" to establish associational discrimination.