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Fourth Circuit Dodges Issue on Applicability of NCEEPA to Interracial Relationship

    Client Alerts
  • July 19, 2013

The North Carolina Equal Employment Practices Act is a state law often resorted to by plaintiffs who missed their filing periods for claims under Title VII, or those who wish to avoid federal courts or damage caps under federal law. Earlier this month in an unpublished opinion, the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals (which includes North Carolina and South Carolina) failed to determine whether NCEEPA's protections extend to an employee who claimed that he was fired because of his personal relationship with an African-American co-worker.

Sampson v. Hospira, Inc. involved a laboratory employee who was terminated for allegedly falsifying reports. He claimed that this reason was a pretext for termination by supervisors who he claimed had expressed displeasure over his sexual relationship with an African-American co-worker. The suit was filed in state court, but was removed to federal court by the defendant on diversity jurisdiction grounds. The district court granted summary judgment to the employer.

The Fourth Circuit affirmed summary judgment, finding no substantial evidence that the termination decision was based on the relationship. The court assumed for purposes of the claim that the NCEEPA protects employees based on their relationship with a person of a different race. However, the Fourth Circuit found it unnecessary to resolve this issue due to the evidentiary gaps in the plaintiff's story.

Most employers assume that the NCEEPA tracks Title VII's prohibition against discrimination based on association with a person of a different race. However, the two laws do not completely parallel one another. Another federal or state case will be needed to determine the extent of employee protections under state discrimination laws.