Many familiar with the employment discrimination landscape already know that American citizens are protected from discrimination based on age, race, religion, national origin, color and disability under federal and state law. Employment discrimination laws about association discrimination, however, may be lesser known.

Association discrimination describes discrimination from an employer directed towards an employee associated with a member of an employment discrimination protected class. For instance, it might apply to the husband of a disabled individual discriminated against based on his spouse’s disabled status.

Discrimination Association Provisions Generally

Both the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 contain provisions prohibiting association discrimination. California employment discrimination law, also known as the Fair Employment and Housing Act (FEHA), addresses association discrimination as well.

Each of these association discrimination provisions contain a requirement for a direct relationship with an individual who possesses a characteristic of the protected classes listed in the main sections of anti-discrimination law. The provisions also normally require that the employer be aware of the association before a cause of action can be viable.

ADA Association Discrimination

The ADA defines “association” for purposes of association discrimination as follows: relationship or association with an individual who has a physical or mental impairment which limits one of more major life activities. According to this definition, the association need not be a familial or employment-related one. For example, an employee fired for volunteering at an HIV clinic may have a cause of action under the ADA for association discrimination.

A notable ADA association discrimination case is Dewitt v. Proctor, a 7th Circuit case decided in 2010. In the case, Dewitt was a nurse fired by her employer-hospital. The cause for her discharge, she asserted, was the increased health care costs incurred from her husband’s prostate cancer treatments. The court ruled that Proctor had a legitimate reason for firing Dewitt and that she failed to prove that she was fired due to her association with her husband and his high medical bills.

In an earlier disposition of the case, the court also spelled out the ground rules for establishing a claim of association discrimination. An employee must show:

1)  She was qualified for the job at the time of the adverse employment actions,

2)  She was subjected to an adverse employment action;

3)  She was known by her employer at the time to have a relative or associate with a disability; and

4)  Her case falls into one of the categories of association discrimination: expense, association by disability or distraction.

Defendants in association discrimination cases have at least one avenue for disproving a claim. If a defendant is able to establish a non-discriminatory reason for the adverse employment action in question, courts may rule in their favor.

Title VII Association Discrimination

Though there is no specific language for association discrimination, Title VII prohibits employment decisions based in whole or in part on discrimination. In 2008, the 7th Circuit ruled for the first time on association discrimination under Title VII in a case called Holcomb v. Iona College. In Holcomb, the plaintiff was a college basketball coach who claimed he was fired due to his marriage to an African-American.

The plaintiff, a White American, successfully established a claim for race discrimination under Title VII, but also raised new issues which brought up association discrimination. The court, rejecting other courts’ previous restrictive views of Title VII, explained “where 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.”

Similarly, in a 2009 cased called Barret v. Whirlpool, the White plaintiff, an employee for Whirlpool was “snubbed” and threatened by supervisors and co-workers, also Caucasian, for her association at work with African-American co-workers. The district court previously dismissed the plaintiff’s claims, partially on the grounds that her association with her African-American co-workers was not sufficiently collegial to establish an association discrimination claim.

The appellate court found that the degree of association in association discrimination cases is irrelevant. Specifically, the court held “if a plaintiff shows 1) that she was discriminated against at work 2) because she associated with members of a protected class, then the degree of association is irrelevant.”

However, retaliation claims involving association discrimination cases have recently been limited. The Sixth Circuit, in a cased called Thomas v. North American Stainless, LP decided that passive, yet associated, third parties to a retaliation claim do not have a cause of action under Title VII. That case involved a worker fired shortly after his then fiancé filed a charge with the EEOC for gender discrimination.

FEHA Association Discrimination

In January 2000, FEHA was expanded to cover cases of association discrimination. In a case heard just last year called Rope v. Auto-Chlor System of Washington, Inc., courts expanded FEHA even further. This case involved an employee who alleged he was fired because of his association with his disabled sister. Planning to donate a kidney to his sister, the employee requested 30 days of paid leave, but was terminated for poor job performance shortly after the request, despite his satisfactory job history.

The California Court of Appeals posited that it was reasonable to infer that Rope was fired due to the expense his employer would incur as a result of granting the paid leave and that this was enough to state a cause of action for association discrimination under FEHA so long as there is a valid discrimination claim to which it can attach.

Broad Range of Support

Though association discrimination is commonly described as an infrequent cause of action under employment discrimination law, this is changing. As more courts address the topic, greater precedence will be established to shape and define the way that association discrimination cases are litigated, both at the state and federal level. Association discrimination cases remain a key example of the broad range of support the law is capable of granting to employees facing discrimination at work.