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Can You Sue an Employer for Association Discrimination?

Discrimination in a place of employment isn’t always necessarily exercised against people belonging to protected classes. Sometimes, such discrimination can occur when an employer learns of an association that an employee or applicant has with an individual belonging to a protected class. It’s possible to file a lawsuit against an employer for association discrimination. This article looks at the concept.

State and federal laws make it illegal for employers to discriminate against employees and job applicants in various protected ways: their race, their sex, their nationality, their age, or even health conditions they may have. Employers are even stopped from enforcing policies that appear neutral on the surface but have the effect of discriminating against certain groups. For instance, an employer who practices the policy of screening out job applicants who have an arrest record might be prevented from going ahead with such a plan if it is found that this policy has a disparate impact on Black applicants. What many people don’t know, however, is that the legal protections offered by these laws extend to association discrimination, as well: treating an employee or applicant unfairly because of their relationship with a member of a protected class.

What is association discrimination?

An employer is said to be guilty of association discrimination when they make an employment decision based on a relationship that an employee or applicant has with someone. A few examples could help make the concept easier to understand.

  • An employer finds out that a job applicant helps out at a nursing home for people with AIDS, believes that the association could make the applicant an infection risk, and decides to not hire them.
  • An employee who is married to an evangelist is passed over for a promotion because the boss, an agnostic, is worried that the evangelist would be preachy at company retreats.
  • An employee is unable to work late because they need to be home early each day to take care of a child with a chronic disease, and is therefore laid off.
  • An applicant isn’t hired because of a spouse with a chronic illness. The employer assumes that the applicant will frequently miss work.
  • An employer decides to fire an employee because they chose interracial marriage, or chose to adopt an interracial child.
  • An employer learns that an applicant’s mother has early-onset Alzheimer’s, and decides to reject their application, believing that the applicant might suffer from the same condition at some point.

A number of discrimination lawsuits have been brought by employees, and have won in court.

Association discrimination has its limits, however

In general, courts tend to interpret associational discrimination broadly. When the laws don’t specifically prohibit association discrimination, courts may nevertheless favor protection. For example, in one case, an employer fired the fiancé of a whistleblower for the belief that they didn’t do their part dissuading the whistleblower from going through with their actions. The court found associational discrimination. Nevertheless, there are limits to where the court will find discrimination. For example, when an employer fired an employee for their activism on behalf of people with HIV, the court found no associational discrimination, because the activism was in support of a group, and not a relationship with an individual.

If you believe that you have been discriminated against in a place of employment based on your association with a person belonging to a protected class, you may have a case. Speaking with an experienced employment lawyer could help you in your search for justice.