In Focus: Association Discrimination

By Douglas Lipsky

Association discrimination claims are becoming increasingly common in New York and around the country. Anti-discrimination laws not only prohibit discrimination against members of a protected class but against employees who are associated or have a relationship with someone in a protected class. Given the challenges of proving discrimination by association, it is crucial to consult with an experienced employment discrimination attorney.

What Is Discrimination By Association?

Federal and state laws that prohibit employment discrimination also prohibit associational discrimination, including:

  • Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (Title VII)
  • The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA)
  • The Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA)
  • The New York State Human Rights Law (NYSHRL)

While the ADA has a specific association discrimination provision, the courts have held discrimination by association is a violation of Title VII and the FMLA. Moreover, the New York State Division of Human Rights established regulations in 2016 prohibiting discrimination against employees who have a known relationship or association with a member or members of a protected category under the NYSHRL.

In short, associational discrimination occurs when an employer makes an employment-related decision (e.g. hiring, compensating, training, promoting, firing) based on an employee’s known relationship or association with someone who is a member of a protected category. 

Examples of association discrimination include:

  • Terminating a white employee because his or he spouse is African American 
  • Refusing to hire an applicant whose child is autistic, based on the assumption that he or she will miss work to care for the child
  • Declining to consider an applicant who is a caregiver for a parent with Alzheimer’s Disease

Although claims for association discrimination are often based on the protected characteristic of an employee’s spouse or another family member, the relationship need not be familial. For example, an employee who fires someone for his or her association with Black Lives Matter may be held liable for association discrimination. 

How to Fight Back Against Association Discrimination

If you believe you have been subjected to association discrimination, talk to an employment discrimination lawyer. An experienced attorney can assess the facts of your situation and help you explore your options. 

To have a viable claim, you must be able to prove that you suffered an adverse employment action (job denial, demotion, reduction in salary, termination) due to your relationship or association with someone in a protected class. 

Though pursuing a claim against an employer is never easy, you should know that your employer cannot retaliate against you for engaging in protected legal activity, including complaining about association discrimination. 

About the Author
Douglas Lipsky is a co-founding partner of Lipsky Lowe LLP. He has extensive experience in all areas of employment law, including discrimination, sexual harassment, hostile work environment, retaliation, wrongful discharge, breach of contract, unpaid overtime, and unpaid tips. He also represents clients in complex wage and hour claims, including collective actions under the federal Fair Labor Standards Act and class actions under the laws of many different states. If you have questions about this article, contact Douglas today.