Title VII of the Civil Rights Act prohibits employment discrimination “because of such individual’s race, color, religion, sex or national origin.” But in light of Title VII’s broad remedial purpose of ending discrimination in the workplace, courts increasingly have construed this provision to protect employees from discrimination based on their associations with and advocacy for individuals of a different race.
In these cases, courts have reasoned that this discrimination is based on “such individual’s race” because the cause of the discrimination is the difference in races between the employee and the protected third party.
While courts generally agree that these associational discrimination claims may be brought on the basis of interracial spousal, romantic or familial relationships, courts are split over whether and to what extent arguably less significant relationships such as friendships or co-worker relationships support such claims. Many courts require a more finite degree of association than mere friendship or collegiality within the workplace.
But not with the federal Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals. In Barrett et al v. Whirlpool Corporation, the Sixth Circuit joined the Seventh Circuit and announced that the degree of the association is irrelevant to whether a plaintiff is eligible for the protection of Title VII under an associational discrimination theory.
As a result of Barrett, the class of potentially protected employees has expanded for employment discrimination lawsuits. Employers should remain mindful that white employees, as well as non-white employees, may bring discrimination and retaliation claims under Title VII.
Employers should alert supervisors to pay attention to workplace comments regarding interracial relationships and reporting behavior in particular. Employers should also train supervisors to take appropriate corrective action when these comments are brought to their attention.
With its decision in Barrett, the Sixth Circuit will potentially open the door to many more association-based discrimination claims. However, in doing so, the Court carefully limited the evidence relevant to such claims to only those remarks that attack the interracial nature of the relationship itself, as opposed to the race of the plaintiff or of the plaintiff’s spouse, child, friend or co-worker.
Thus, although this Court’s decision arguably expanded the protection of Title VII, its judicious analysis ensures that associational discrimination claims will remain moored to Title VII’s stated purpose of eliminating discrimination in the workplace “because of such individual’s race.”