The Second and Sixth Circuit Courts of Appeals recently expanded the class of persons protected under Title VII to include associated third parties. More specifically, these Circuits held that employers may not discriminate or take retaliatory action against employees who are closely related to or associated with individuals involved in a protected activity.
In Holcomb v. Iona College, a former white Iona College assistant men’s basketball coach claimed that he was fired because he was married to a black woman. The college claimed that the coach’s removal was part of a necessary overhaul of the poorly performing team. In vacating summary judgment for the college and remanding the case, the Second Circuit reasoned that where an employee is subjected to an adverse action because an employer disapproves of interracial association, that employee suffers discrimination because of the employee’s own race. Based upon the evidence, the Court reasoned that a reasonable jury could find that the decision to dismiss the coach was motivated, in part, by his marriage to a black woman.
Shortly thereafter, the Sixth Circuit recognized a cause of action for retaliation on the basis of association. In Thompson v. North American Stainless, the plaintiff was terminated shortly after his fiancée filed a discrimination charge with the EEOC against their common employer. The employer argued that Title VII does not provide a cause of action for retaliation against associated third parties. The Sixth Circuit, however, concluded that retaliation against a family member would dissuade a reasonable employee from engaging in a protected activity, thus meeting the U.S. Supreme Court’s definition of retaliation. The Sixth Circuit also relied upon the EEOC Compliance Manual for further support for its interpretation.
In so holding, these Circuits have declined to follow the decisions of other courts and have created a split among the federal appellate circuits. Until and unless the Supreme Court decides the issue, employers should be aware of the potential for third-party discrimination or retaliation claims. Employers should be sensitive to complaints by employees that adverse action taken against them results from an intent to discriminate or retaliate against a third party. Any such adverse action should only result from documented, demonstrable business reasons.