Under Title VII, employees who face adverse actions for complaining about discrimination are able to sue their employers for retaliation. But what about employees who complain about discrimination resulting from their association with people of other races? A federal court recently addressed this question of “associational discrimination” in the case of Kengerski v. Harper.
In Kengerski, the Plaintiff complained about a co-worker who made racially disparaging comments about his grand-niece. A few months later, the Plaintiff was terminated. He filed a Title VII retaliation claim in federal court, but it was dismissed on the grounds that the Plaintiff himself was not the subject of the racially disparaging comments.
On appeal, the Court held that “associational discrimination is well grounded in the text of Title VII. In a practical sense, the name is a misnomer because, when you discriminate against an employee because of his association with someone of a different race, you are in effect discriminating against him ‘because of [his own] race’ in violation of Title VII.” The Court added that “This theory of discrimination is not limited to close or substantial relationships. While one might expect the degree of an association to correlate with the likelihood of severe or pervasive discrimination on the basis of that association, the degree of association is irrelevant to whether a plaintiff is eligible for the protections of Title VII in the first place. Employees thus may not be discriminated against because of their interracial relationships with distant relatives such as a grand-niece.” As such, the Court reversed the lower court’s decision.
What should employers take away from this case? Simply put, if an employee complains that they are being discriminated against because of the race of someone they associate with, this should be treated just as seriously as a complaint by an employee who claims they are being discriminated against because of their own race.