In a case of first impression, the United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit recently held that antidiscrimination laws may be violated when a white employee is fired for having a black spouse. In Holcomb v. Iona College, 521 F.3d 130 (2d Cir. 2008), the Second Circuit vacated and remanded a federal district court’s grant of summary judgment in favor of Iona College (the “College”), finding that triable issues existed as to whether the College’s decision to terminate its employee, Craig Holcomb, was based at least in part upon a racially discriminatory motive. The Holcomb court extended Title VII protection to employees in interracial marriages under an association theory and held that “an employer may violate Title VII if it takes action against an employee because of the employee’s association with a person of another race.”

Holcomb, a white man, claimed that the College terminated his employment as associate head coach of the men’s basketball team because of his marriage to a black woman. The College claimed in defense that Holcomb was terminated due to the increasingly poor performance of the basketball team.

Holcomb alleged that the Director of Athletics and the Vice President of the College played a role in his termination and had a history of discrimination. Specifically, Holcomb claimed that the Director had barred high school students, many of whom were black, and Holcomb’s wife from attending “Goal Club” events. The “Goal Club” is a fundraising and social organization for alumni, most of whom are white. Holcomb also claimed that the Director and the College’s Vice President made racially charged comments about the black basketball players, other black employees, and Holcomb’s wife.

In analyzing Holcomb’s claims, the court noted that the burden of establishing a prima facie case of alleged disparate treatment “is not onerous” and that a plaintiff satisfies his burden by showing that (1) he belonged to a protected class, (2) he was qualified for the position he held, (3) he suffered an adverse employment action, and (4) the adverse employment action occurred under circumstances giving rise to an inference of discriminatory intent. The second and third elements were not disputed.

The court reasoned that Holcomb was a member of a protected class under Title VII because there was evidence that his interracial marriage was the reason for his termination. Thus, “an employer may 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 the reasoning of other courts and held that “where an employee is subjected to an adverse action because an employer disapproves of interracial association, the employee suffers discrimination because of the employee’s own race.” The court noted that all of the district court judges in the Second Circuit who have considered this question, including the district court in this case, have reached the same conclusion and that the Fifth, Sixth, and Eleventh Circuits also agree.

Holcomb reminds employers that discrimination claims may be based upon an individual’s association with another person. While the ruling has not been extended to interfaith and same-sex marriages, employers should consider the possibility that the principles enunciated in Holcomb will be extended to other types of relationships. This once again reinforces that employers should carefully review termination and other employment decisions to ensure such decisions are based on legitimate business factors and to understand the potential litigation risks that may flow from such decisions.