In a case of first impression, the Second Circuit Court of Appeals recently held that anti-discrimination 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, 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 Iona College terminated his employment as associate head coach of the men's basketball team because of his marriage to a black woman. Iona College claimed in defense that Holcomb was terminated due to the increasingly poor performance of the basketball team. The team's record had declined from a commendable record of 74-50 from 1997 to 2001 to a poor record of 41-47 from 2001 to 2004. In addition, the team failed to qualify for the NCAA tournament from 2002 through 2004.
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.
Holcomb was terminated, along with another assistant coach, Tony Chiles, a black man. Jeff Ruland, the white head coach, who was also in an interracial relationship, was not terminated. The third assistant coach, Rob O'Driscoll, who was a white man and was not in an interracial relationship, was not terminated but eventually chose to leave his position. The College hired three coaches, one of whom was black, to replace the three assistant coaches.
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.
In analyzing the first element, 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 judges in the Second Circuit who have considered this question, including the district court in this case, have reached the same conclusion and the Fifth, Sixth, and Eleventh Circuits also agree.
In analyzing the fourth element, the Court found that Holcomb met the minimally low threshold of showing "that he was terminated under circumstances which give rise to an inference of unlawful discrimination." To support this inference, the Court noted that the College had "decided to fire 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." The fact that Ruland was not fired, despite his interracial relationship, was not enough to "allay the suspicion that the firings were grounded in an illegitimate motive" because "Ruland was simply too expensive to fire." Additionally, evidence supported a finding that both Brennan and Petriccione had racially improper motives.
While the Court found that the College had produced evidence of a race-neutral reason for terminating Holcomb and Chiles, it determined that Holcomb had raised sufficient evidence upon which a reasonable jury could conclude by a preponderance of the evidence that the decision to fire him was based, at least in part, on the fact that his wife was black. Direct "smoking gun" evidence of discrimination is not required in mixed-motive cases such as this one, and Holcomb was entitled to rely on circumstantial evidence. See Desert Palace, Inc. v. Costa , 539 U.S. 90, 92 (2003). Holcomb contended that the College's stated reason for his termination was entirely pretextual, and the Court noted that "in many cases, a showing of pretext, when combined with a prima facie case of discrimination, will be enough to permit a rational finder of fact to decide that the decision was motivated by an improper motive." Moreover, Holcomb was not required to prove that the College's stated reason for his termination was a pretext. In fact, Holcomb "adduced little evidence to suggest he was terminated solely because his wife was black." He merely had to show that the termination decision was partly motivated by a discriminatory animus to prevail on the ultimate merits of his claim and survive defendant's motion for summary judgment.
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.
Kevin B. Leblang is a Partner and Chair of the Employment Law Practice at Kramer Levin Naftalis & Frankel LLP. He can be reached at (212) 715-9306. Robert N. Holtzman is a Partner in the Employment Law Practice at the firm and can be reached at (212) 715-9513.