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Second Circuit Recognizes Title VII Association Claim
Friday, May 29, 2009

For the first time, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit has permitted a plaintiff to maintain a claim under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (“Title VII”) for alleged employment discrimination based upon his association with a member of a protected class. In Holcomb v. Iona College, 2008 U.S. App. LEXIS 6897 (2d Cir. 2008), the Court reversed summary judgment for Iona College on a former assistant coach’s claim that the school discharged him because he was married to an African-American woman.

The Facts
In 1995, plaintiff Craig Holcomb began his employment with defendant Iona College (“Iona”) as an assistant coach of the men’s basketball team. In 1998, the college promoted him to the position of Associate Head Coach, reporting to the Head Coach and the Athletic Director.
In June 2000, Holcomb married an African-American woman. In addition to Holcomb, the team also had two other assistant coaches, Tony Chiles, who was African-American, and Rob O’Driscoll, who was Caucasian.
The Iona basketball team performed well from 1997 to 2001, but then performed poorly for several seasons. In 2004, the college terminated the employment of Holcomb and Chiles. Among the college officers who participated in the decision were Shawn Brennan, the Athletic Director, and Richard Petriccione, the Vice President for Advancement and External Affairs. Both individuals played important alumni relations and fundraising roles for the college.
The District Court
Holcomb filed a lawsuit in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York. He alleged that Iona’s decision to terminate his employment “was motivated by his marriage to a black woman.” In particular, he accused Brennan and Petriccione of acting upon “improper racial motives.” He contended that Brennan and Petriccione were motivated by a “perceived need to appeal to the pockets of Iona’s mostly white alumni.” In support of this contention, Holcomb cited alleged incidents in which Brennan and Petriccione engaged in “racially questionable conduct.”
According to Holcomb, Brennan ended a practice of permitting local high school athletes, most of whom were African- American, to attend certain basketball related alumni fundraising and social organization events. After seeing African- American players wearing “hip-hop clothing,” Brennan also allegedly asked the head coach to “get these colored boys to dress like the white guys on the team.” Holcomb alleged that Petriccione used the “n-word” and other racial slurs on more than one occasion, including upon receiving an invitation to Holcomb’s wedding.
After discovery, the district court granted Iona’s motion for summary judgment, concluding that no evidence showed that the college had acted upon “improper discriminatory motives.” Holcomb appealed.
The Second Circuit
The Second Circuit applied the McDonnell Douglas analysis, which required Holcomb to establish as a threshold matter: “(1) that he belonged to a protected class; (2) that he was qualified for the position he held; (3) that he suffered an adverse employment action; and (4) that the adverse employment action occurred under circumstances giving rise to an inference of discriminatory intent.” It was undisputed that Holcomb satisfied the second and third prongs.
The first prong, however, presented the novel question for the Second Circuit of whether someone could become a member of a protected class by virtue of his or her association with a member of a protected class. Resolving this question in the affirmative, the Court 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.” In reaching this holding, the Court rejected the argument, accepted by some courts, that Title VII, by its express language, only prohibits discrimination against an individual “because of such individual’s race.”
According to the Second Circuit, “where an employee is subjected to adverse action because an employer disapproves of interracial association, the employee suffers discrimination because of the employee’s own race.” (Emphasis in original). The Court explained that Holcomb’s interracial marriage rendered him a member of a protected class under Title VII.
Turning to the fourth prong, the Second Circuit considered whether the circumstances gave rise to an inference of discrimination. The Court concluded that Holcomb established this prong by presenting evidence that: (1) the college fired “Holcomb, a white man married to a black woman, and Chiles, a black man, while retaining O’Driscoll, a white man who was not in an interracial relationship”; (2) Brennan and Petriccione, who played a role in the termination decision, knew that Holcomb’s wife was African- American; (3) Brennan had allegedly taken steps to reduce the presence of African-Americans at basketball events; and (4) Petriccione expressed disapproval of Holcomb’s marriage to an African-American woman.
The burden then shifted to Iona to articulate a legitimate, nondiscriminatory reason for its decision to terminate Holcomb’s employment. According to the Court, Iona could not satisfy this burden merely by showing that some change to the basketball program was warranted by the team’s poor performance. Rather, Iona had to “provide a nondiscriminatory reason for the particular course of action it chose: to fire the white assistant coach who was married to a black woman, along with the black coach, while deciding at the same time to retain the white coach who was not in an interracial relationship.”
The Court found evidence to support a legitimate, nondiscriminatory reason. Specifically, Iona’s President testified that he chose to retain one of the assistant coaches in order to maintain continuity and chose O’Driscoll because of reports that he worked well with other departments in the college and was doing the best job of the three assistant coaches.
The burden then shifted back to Holcomb to demonstrate that Iona’s proffered reason was pretextual, which he accomplished by pointing to evidence that O’Driscoll was the only Iona assistant coach whom the NCAA was investigating for violations of its rules. The Court emphasized that, in order to prevail, Holcomb merely had to provide evidence supporting his contention that the decision to terminate his employment was partly attributable to his wife’s race. Having done so, a “reasonable jury” could “reach the conclusion that race played an illegitimate role in the college’s decision.”
In support of its argument that discriminatory animus did not influence its termination decision, Iona cited its subsequent hiring of an African-American assistant coach. According to the Second Circuit, a “jury might count this as evidence that the defendant did not base its termination decision on the fact that Holcomb’s wife was African- American” or “might determine that the college hired a black coach as a way of concealing its prior discrimination.”
The Court observed that, in light of this evidence, a jury might also “conclude that the relevant actors were animated, not by racism per se, but instead solely by their disapproval of interracial relationships” or “the jury might accept that the college did not act with the motive of eliminating all African-Americans from the program’s staff, but find that the college wanted nevertheless to have at least one coach who was neither black nor in an interracial relationship.” The Court concluded that there was adequate evidence to “permit a reasonable jury to conclude that the college’s decision to terminate Holcomb was based, at least in part, upon a racially discriminatory motive.”
The Court vacated the judgment for Iona and remanded the case to the district court for trial.
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