Associational Discrimination Case Allowed to Proceed

The men's basketball team at Iona College in New Rochelle, N.Y., wasn't doing as well as it had in the past. Finding that the coaching staff was to blame, the school fired two of the four coaches.

Assistant Head Coach Craig Holcomb, a white man married to a black woman, was one of two people fired during the 2004 staffing shake up. The other fired employee was the only black assistant coach--Tony Chiles. The two coaches kept on the staff were white--Head Coach Jeff Ruland and Assistant Coach
Rob O'Driscoll.

Holcomb sued under Title VII, claiming associational discrimination. His suit states that Richard Petriccione, a vice president of the college, and Shawn Brennan, the director of athletics, put him on the chopping block because
his wife was black.

The District Court granted summary judgment in July 2006 to the defendants, finding that "even if Petriccione and Brennan had previously engaged in racist conduct, Holcomb had produced no evidence that his firing was the product of improper discriminatory motives."

After all, Holcomb is white and not recognized as a member of a protected class under Title VII. But taking an expansive look at Title VII, Second Circuit Judge Guido Calabresi wrote, "We hold, for the first time, that an employer may violate Title VII if it takes action against an employee because of the employee's association with a person of another race."

The ruling added that when an employee is subjected to adverse action because an employer disapproves of an interracial association, the employee suffers discrimination because of the employee's own race.

"This creates new law," says Joe Kouri, a partner at Sedgwick, Detert, Moran & Arnold in San Francisco. "It says, in effect, that a white person married to a person of a different race can sue for race discrimination based on his own race."

If Holcomb were black it wouldn't be an issue that he married a black woman because he would not be in an interracial relationship. "But for the fact that he is white, he wouldn't have been fired, and therefore it's his race that was the focal point," Kouri says.

Discriminatory Evidence
Although Holcomb is not a member of a protected class himself, the 2nd Circuit applied an expansive reading to Title VII because of evidence that Petriccione made racial remarks about Holcomb's wife.

Holcomb, who joined the Iona Gaels men's basketball team in 1995, married Pamela Gauthier, a black woman, in 2000. According to Holcomb, whose claim is backed up by a third party, when Holcomb asked Petriccione if he received his wedding invitation, he responded, "You're really going to marry that Aunt Jemima?"

Other examples of racism included a decision by Brennan in 2003 to bar Holcomb's wife and Ruland's girlfriend, who was black, from basketball team social and fundraising activities. Holcomb says Brennan said it was because neither woman was an alumnus. Holcomb maintains the real reason was to decrease the number of black people at these events because Iona alumni are mostly white. Brennan denied he ever excluded the women from any events.

The college maintained the decision to fire Holcomb was not based on racial factors, but instead on the need to improve the basketball team's poor performance by upgrading the coaching staff. Even though Holcomb and the only black member of the coaching staff were fired, the college said one of the new coaches hired was black, and Ruland, one of the white coaches not fired, was dating a black woman.

The 2nd Circuit ruled that hiring a black coach could have been an action by the college to conceal its prior discrimination. Also, firing Ruland would have been too expensive an option given his current contract with the college.

Extended Application

The court said that while Holcomb showed little evidence that he was terminated solely because his wife was black, he only needs to prove that the decision was partly based on racial discrimination and the case should be allowed to go before a jury.

"This same logic can apply to other circumstances," Kouri says. "I don't see why the logic of Holcomb could not equally apply to same-sex relationship situations. Why couldn't a woman employee involved in a relationship with another woman say her gender is an issue?"

Carla Rozycki, a partner at Jenner & Block in Chicago, agrees. Under this logic, a woman living with a woman who gets fired and thinks her same-sex relationship was a factor can sue her employer claiming gender discrimination. She would be claiming she would not have been fired if she lived with a man instead of living with a woman.

"This could perhaps provide a rationale to recognize sexual orientation claims under Title VII, which currently does not prevent discrimination against people because of their sexual orientation," Rozycki adds.

The case points up the need for employers to consider whether they need to revise their discrimination policies and training to ensure that supervisors understand they can't treat employees differently based on the people with whom they associate.

"[The decision] reinforces the need for employers to be vigilant, to be sure their workplace remains free from discrimination and to maintain zero tolerance toward such attitudes or conduct, not just because it's against the law, but because it's bad business," says Steve Steinfeld, partner at Winston & Strawn's New York office.

He says employers will now have to look for evidence in adverse employment decisions of whether the decision-maker has some sort of bias against the person being fired because of an interracial relationship. "If so, people will wonder if the decision was tainted," he says.

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Yesenia Salcedo

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