Paula Deen Ruling Also Reminds Us: Title VII Protects Employees Who Are Discriminated Against for Their Association with People of Other Races Outside of the Workplace

| Marcus, Ellen

"Basketball "

On Tuesday, we examined the dismissal by a Georgia federal court of Lisa T. Jackson’s race-based discrimination claim against Paula Deen and others, and noted that, under Title VII, an employer may not discriminate against an employee for associating with employees of another race.  But we don’t want you to be left with the impression that the association has to be between co-workers.  Courts also have recognized “interracial association” Title VII claims for associations occurring outside of the workplace.  The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit is one such court.

In Holcomb v. Iona College, a former basketball coach for a New York college, who was white, claimed that he was fired because he was married to a woman who was black.  As evidence of the college’s discriminatory intent, the coach alleged that his superior habitually made racist comments, including commenting before the coach got married:  “‘[Y]ou’re really going to marry that Aunt Jemima?  You really are a n***** lover.’” 

The Second Circuit concluded that, even though the coach was white, he may have a Title VII claim against the college for his association (in this case, marriage) with a black woman.  Title VII prohibits discrimination by employers against employees “because of such individual’s . . . race.”    As the court put it:  “[W]here an employee is subjected to adverse action because an employer disapproves of interracial association, the employee suffers discrimination because of the employee’s own race.”  It does not matter whether the association occurs inside the workplace (as it did in the Barrett v. Whirlpool case, featured in Tuesday’s post) or outside the workplace.