Employee Associations with Other Races Included in Legal Protections

April 2, 2008 (PLANSPONSOR.com) - For the first time, the 2nd U.S.Circuit Court of Appeals has ruled that an employer may be found in violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act if it takes action against an employee due to his or her association with someone of another race.

In the case of Craig Holcomb v. Iona College, the 2nd Circuit found that a reasonable jury could conclude that Holcomb, who is white, was fired in part because he is married to a black woman, so it remanded the case back to a lower court for further proceedings.

In its opinion, the appellate court pointed out that Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 provides that it is an “unlawful employment practice for an employer . . . to discharge any individual . . . because of such individual’s race,” and Congress amended the statute to make clear that “an unlawful employment practice is established when the complaining party demonstrates that race . . . was a motivating factor for any employment practice, even though other factors also motivated the practice.” An employment decision violates Title VII when it is “based in whole or in part on discrimination,” the 2 nd Circuit said.

The appellate panel noted that Holcomb was not required to show that the reasons for firing him given by Iona College were false, but that the discrimination was at least one of the motivating factors. Testimony that two of the college’s vice presidents – who were involved in the termination decision – had previously engaged in racist conduct provided that showing, the court determined.

Holcomb was second in line to the head coach of the men’s basketball team at Iona. The head coach was white and was dating a black woman, one assistant coach was white, and the other was black.

After several years of lackluster performance by the men’s basketball team, the college’s president and several vice presidents made the decision to fire Holcomb and the black assistant coach – against the advice of the Director of Athletics and in spite of the fact that the white assistant coach was indicated in an NCAA investigation of rules infractions. The college maintained that the head coach was kept for monetary reasons since the dollar amount of his contract was high, and the white assistant coach – the most junior of the four men – was kept because of his good service record and ability to get along with others.

Holcomb filed suit against the college and a district court granted summary judgment for Iona, saying “no reasonable jury could favor Holcomb on the merits of his suit.” The 2 nd Circuit disagreed.

The opinion in Holcomb v. Iona College is here .