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White Employees Allowed to Sue for Alleged Discrimination Based Upon Association with Black Co-Workers


March 5, 2009

In a recent decision, the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals reversed a trial court ruling rejecting the claim of three white employees that their employer unlawfully discriminated against them because of their friendships with black coworkers. Barrett v. Whirlpool Corp.

Title VII prohibits employers from discriminating against employees on the basis of their race, color, religion, sex, or national origin. The theory of associational discrimination extends these protections to individuals who -- though not members of a protected class themselves -- encounter discrimination because they associate with persons who are. The classic associational discrimination case typically involves a relationship that exists outside of work, such as a romantic association (dating or marriage) or a familial one (parent-child).

In Barrett, the trial court found that the employees failed to establish the requisite degree of association to support an associational discrimination claim. It determined that the employees had only shown they were friendly with black coworkers while at work and this did not rise above mere workplace collegiality.

The Sixth Circuit reversed the trial court, relying extensively on the Seventh Circuit's decision in Drake v. Minnesota Mining and Manufacturing Co. to conclude that "[i]f a plaintiff shows that 1) she was discriminated against at work 2) because she associated with members of a protected class, then the degree of the association is irrelevant . . . ." The court reasoned that the absence of a relationship outside the workplace should not immunize the conduct of harassers who target employees because they associate with co-workers that belong to a protected class. The court continued, "[w]hile one might expect the degree of an association to correlate with the likelihood of severe or pervasive discrimination on the basis of that association -- for example, a nonprotected employee who is married to a protected individual may be more likely to experience associational harassment than one who is merely friends with a protected individual -- that goes to the question of whether the plaintiff has established a hostile work environment, not whether he is eligible for the protections of Title VII in the first place."

The Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals is the federal appellate court for Kentucky, Michigan, Ohio, and Tennessee; the Seventh Circuit covers Illinois, Indiana, and Wisconsin.

In light of these cases, employers should keep in mind that even employees who are not members of the groups typically thought of as "protected classes" under federal anti-discrimination laws can and do file lawsuits.

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