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A New Third Circuit Court of Appeals Ruling Recognizes Race-Based ‘Associational Discrimination’ as a Permissible Basis for a Title VII Claim

Many times, appeals court rulings reaffirm well-established concepts of law. Sometimes, though, these rulings may stake out new territory or expressly clarify something for the first time, making them particularly noteworthy developments in the law. For you, as a worker who may have been harmed by workplace discrimination, it is vital to have a knowledgeable New Jersey employment discrimination lawyer on your side who is fully versed on all of the law’s latest advances and updates so that those new developments in the law can be put to full use on your behalf.

A recent case from the Third Circuit Court of Appeals, which is the federal appeals court whose rulings directly impact federal cases in Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and Delaware, represented one of those significant developments. In that late July ruling, the court announced for the first time that race-based “associational discrimination” was a viable form of discrimination under which a worker could pursue a Title VII discrimination case.

The employee, J.K., a captain at the county jail in Pittsburgh, had allegedly endured a considerable amount of racially offensive conduct, including comments with racial slurs like “monkey” and text messages with “racially offensive” content.

According to J.K.’s complaint, a white female colleague at the jail quizzed him about his grandniece, asking, “what kind of name is [that]? Is she black?” After learning that the child was biracial and that J.K. and his wife might assume custody of the child temporarily, the colleague allegedly opined that J.K. would be “that guy at the store with a little monkey on his hip.”

That same colleague also allegedly sent out racially offensive text messages that displayed “unflattering photographs of African-Americans and Asians, often repeating offensive stereotypes. For instance, several of the photographs depict overweight African-American women, and one of the photographs depicts an Asian woman with enlarged teeth.”

Eventually, the captain complained to his warden. Allegedly, instead of addressing and correcting the issues, the employer fired J.K. a few months after he lodged his complaint.

This led J.K. to file a federal lawsuit asserting that the employer had engaged in impermissible retaliation in violation of Title VII. One of the employer’s primary arguments was that J.K. could not pursue a Title VII retaliation claim because he was white and was not the target of the racially offensive comments.

The Third Circuit stated very directly that this type of argument was incorrect. In making this ruling, the appeals court specifically determined, for the first time, that race-based “associational discrimination” was a viable form of discrimination under which a worker could pursue a Title VII discrimination case.

There are a few key points from this ruling that are worth highlighting. One is that, when you pursue a retaliation case based upon your complaints of a hostile work environment, the amount of proof that the law demands is different (and lower) than if you were pursuing an actual hostile work environment claim. In the latter case, the worker must prove that the alleged conduct was either severe or pervasive. In the scenario of a retaliation case, you only need enough evidence to show that you had an “objectively reasonable belief” that your work environment was hostile.

Second, and likely more impactful for more workers, was the court’s express adoption of associational discrimination as viable under Title VII. Specifically, this means that a worker can advance a Title VII retaliation claim if he suffers harm after “he reports a work environment that he reasonably believes is hostile to him because of his association with persons of another race.”

Your Associational Discrimination Doesn’t Require a ‘Close or Substantial’ Relationship

In the past, other federal appeals courts have ruled in favor of workers who have suffered at work due to their having a biracial child or because they were a white person in a relationship with an African-American partner. According to this new Third Circuit ruling, though, the law does not require a “close or substantial” relationship. The “‘degree of association is irrelevant’ to whether a plaintiff ‘is eligible for the protections of Title VII in the first place.’” That includes distant familial relationships like granduncle-grandniece, as was the case in J.K.’s lawsuit.

There are many different ways in which you can be harmed as a result of a race-based hostile work environment or as a result of retaliation after you spoke out against that hostile environment. If you’ve suffered that kind of harm at work, don’t delay in contacting the knowledgeable New Jersey workplace discrimination attorneys at Phillips & Associates. We are determined advocates for victims of workplace discrimination and are ready to get to work for you. Reach out to us online or call (609) 436-9087 today to set up a free and confidential consultation.

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