Second Circuit Recognizes Associational Discrimination Claim Based on Race

Employment discrimination laws prohibit adverse employment actions, such as termination or demotion, based on race, gender, religion, disability, and certain other protected categories. More recently, the courts have had to grapple with claims of “associational discrimination.”

The Second Circuit’s recent ruling in Holcomb v. Iona College recognized the viability of such claims. In that case, the plaintiff worked as an assistant coach of the Iona College basketball team. Iona College eventually fired Holcomb, claiming that his termination had to do with his poor job performance. Holcomb, who is white, believed that he was fired because his wife is African-American. While the district court granted summary judgment for Iona (i.e., dismissing the case), the Second Circuit remanded on appeal.

The issue before the Second Circuit was one of first impression: Can an an employer violate Title VII if it takes action against an employee because of the employee’s association with a person of another race? The court rejected Iona’s reasoning and answered this question in the affirmative:

We reject this restrictive reading of Title VII. The reason is simple: 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. All the district judges in this circuit to consider the question, including the district court in this case, have reached that conclusion.

In reaching its decision, the court also noted the egregious conduct that the plaintiff endured from Iona’s Director of Athletics, Richard Petriccione:

Early in his tenure as an assistant coach, Holcomb claims to have heard Petriccione say: “[E]verybody at Fordham thinks they have these good black kids, and Iona has niggers.” A year later, when several black members of the Iona Gaels were accused of stealing and selling telephone access codes, Petriccione allegedly told Holcomb that the basketball program needed to “keep [its] niggers in line.” Colleagues at Iona testified to Petriccione’s record of what might, charitably, be called racial insensitivity. Egregiously in this respect, Petriccione is said to have referred to a Nigerian employee at the Alumni Giving Office as a “jungle bunny” and an “African princess.” When that member of staff applied to his office for the position of Assistant Director of Annual Giving, he remarked: “[W]hat does she think she is coming from a hut in Africa and thinking she could apply for this job?” The most striking of the allegations against Petriccione relates directly to Holcomb and his wife. Plaintiff testified that in February 2000, he asked Petriccione whether he had received the wedding invitation that Holcomb and Gauthier had sent him. According to Holcomb, whose claim is backed up in this respect by a third party, Petriccione replied: “[Y]ou’re really going to marry that Aunt Jemima? You really are a nigger lover.”

In recognizing associational discrimination claims based on race, the Second Circuit joins the Sixth, Fifth, and Eleventh Circuits.