Title VII Prohibits “Associational Discrimination,” Even for Distant Relationships


Under Title VII, employees are protected from discrimination and retaliation based on their association with persons of another race (i.e. “associational discrimination”), regardless of the closeness of the relationship, according to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit.

In Kengerski v. Harper, an employee made a written complaint that a colleague had called his bi-racial grand-niece a “monkey” and also sent offensive text messages with racial comments about his coworkers. Seven months later, he was fired. He sued, claiming retaliation for his complaint, but the federal district court rejected his claim on the basis that the employee, who is White, could not maintain a claim for Title VII retaliation.

The Third Circuit disagreed, joining its sister Circuits in holding that “Title VII protects all employees from retaliation when they reasonably believe that behavior at their work violates the statute and they make a good-faith complaint. As relevant here, harassment against an employee because he associates with a person of another race, such as a family member, may violate Title VII by creating a hostile work environment.” The Third Circuit further observed that this theory of associational discrimination is not limited to “close or substantial” relationships, and that the protections of Title VII extend to even distant family relationships – such as a grand-niece.

This case reminds employers that employees are protected from discrimination not just on the basis of their own race, but that of those they choose to associate with – whether family, friends, or others.