Most people are aware that state and federal anti-discrimination laws protect them from adverse employment actions on the basis of certain protected classes, such as race, gender, disability, and age. However, fewer know that per a legal doctrine known as associational discrimination, employers may also be barred from discrimination against workers based on a relationship they have with a member of a protected class.
Employers can be held liable for associational discrimination as well as associational retaliation. Such claims can be filed under provisions of the Americans With Disabilities Act (federal), as well as the California Fair Housing and Employment Act (FEHA). The ADA explicitly bars excluding or denying equal jobs/benefits to a person who is qualified on the basis of a known disability. It also prohibits discrimination of a qualified person based on their relationship to or association with someone who has a disability.
Associational discrimination laws can also be filed under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which shields workers on the basis of gender, religion, national origin, and race. As our Los Angeles employment discrimination attorneys can explain though, this law doesn’t expressly bar associative discrimination like the ADA does. However, numerous courts have upheld associational discrimination is applicable under Title VII. In fact, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit recently affirmed such a case, joining numerous other federal appeals courts in reaching this conclusion.
According to court records in the recently-decided Kengerski v. Orlando Harper; Alleghany County, the captain of a jail, who was white, filed a complaint with the warden of his facility against a white co-worker. He alleged that when he mentioned taking care of his biracial grandniece, the colleague made numerous comments that were racially offensive, calling the child a “little monkey.” She reportedly sent numerous texts along the same lines as well. After he complained, the co-worker was placed on administrative leave. However, the plaintiff was fired months later, his employer alleging he’d failed to properly handle a complaint for sexual harassment.
Plaintiff later alleged the employer and his supervisor were liable for racial discrimination and retaliation under Title VII. The federal district court granted the defense motion for a summary judgment, finding plaintiff didn’t have standing to file a claim because he was never directly the subject of any offensive or negative commentary. The court reasoned that if it were to allow this case of purported associational discrimination to proceed, it could extend to an unreasonable degree to numerous situations, including distant friends and relatives. Here, because the grandniece is a “distant relative,” the court held, the associational discrimination claim didn’t hold water.
The Third Circuit reversed. The panel noted that this isn’t about some random, distant association. In this case, when the totality of the evidence is scrutinized (including the initial comments and follow-up text messages), a reasonable person could find this plaintiff’s workplace was, in fact, hostile and that associational discrimination was a factor in his firing. The court reversed the lower court’s ruling and remanded the matter for further proceedings.
The case underscores that “association” can mean a wide variety of relationships, and these can be construed broadly. As the U.S. Court of Appeals ruled in the 2004 case of Larimer v. International Business Machines Corp., a “relationship or association” can mean one’s family, but it can also mean a business, social, or some other relationship too. It’s not limitless, but neither is it to be strictly interpreted solely as immediate family members.
Contact the employment attorneys at Nassiri Law Group, practicing in Newport Beach, Riverside and Los Angeles. Call 714-937-2020.
Kengerski v. Orlando Harper; Alleghany County, July 29, 2021, U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit