A White Workers Discrimination Case Could Lead to More Claims

April 25, 2008
A New York-based federal appeals court ruling that civil rights law protects white workers in certain circumstances may have only a modest short-term effect but could lead to substantially more discrimination claims in the long run, legal experts say.

    A 2nd U.S Circuit Court of Appeals panel ruled April 1 that Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 would protect a white employee terminated by white supervisors if the decision was motivated by the employee’s relationship with someone of a different race.

    In its first-ever decision on the issue, the three-judge panel unanimously reversed a lower court’s July 2006 summary judgment in favor of an employer accused of terminating a white employee because he was married to a black woman.

    Few racial discrimination cases against employers involve claims centering on a worker’s relationship with someone of a different race, employer and plaintiffs’ attorneys agree.

    But employer attorneys say the ruling exposes many employers to such claims for the first time, because so many companies are based within the 2nd Circuit, which covers New York, Connecticut and Vermont.

    And plaintiffs’ attorneys pointed out that interracial marriages have mushroomed in the four decades since the U.S. Supreme Court struck down state bans of such unions.

    In the case, Craig Holcomb v. Iona College, Holcomb was terminated in 2004 from his position as an assistant basketball coach, along with a black assistant coach.

    Holcomb charges that two of the five school officials involved in terminating him had on numerous occasions verbally expressed racist views—including some directed at his wife—and had taken other discriminatory actions against blacks.

    Among other things, Holcomb’s wife and the black girlfriend of the team’s white head coach were banned from team booster events. A school official said at the time that the decision was based on the fact that the women were neither school alumni nor donors, according to court papers.

    Iona, located in New Rochelle, New York, said the two assistant coaches were terminated in an effort to improve team performance.

    In overturning a lower court ruling that Holcomb could not link any bias by officials to his termination, the 2nd Circuit analyzed a provision of Title VII that prohibits employers from taking adverse employment actions against any worker "because of such individual’s race."

    Some courts, including two federal district courts in Alabama and Georgia, have interpreted that passage to mean that a white employee cannot claim that a white supervisor racially discriminated against the worker.

    Rejecting that interpretation, the 2nd Circuit panel ruled, "The reason is simple: 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."

    The 5th, 6th and 11th Circuits have ruled similarly since 1986, as have a majority of district courts within the 2nd Circuit, according to the 2nd Circuit panel, which remanded the case to the trial court.

    While employers do not face many such claims, the decision highlights the problems employers can create by giving employment authority to managers who express racial biases, according to employer attorney Neal D. Mollen, a partner at Paul, Hastings, Janofsky & Walker in Washington.

    Employers should establish termination processes that involve "multiple voices," including an official not directly involved in employee/supervisor relationship, he says.

    Beyond that, the decision should not be burdensome to employers, because most have adopted strong policies that prohibit racially insensitive comments in the workplace, says employer attorney Gerald L. Maatman Jr., a partner with Seyfarth Shaw in Chicago.

    Still, "once you invite a person with bias into the decision-making circle, I think you’re stuck" with that bias as part of the decision, says plaintiffs’ attorney Lee F. Bantle of Bantle & Levy in New York.

    Even so, Title VII essentially allows employers to escape liability if they can prove they would have acted as they did even if a decision-maker had not been biased, says plaintiffs’ attorney James Finberg, a partner with Altshuler Berzon in San Francisco

    Under those circumstances, plaintiffs can recover only their attorney fees, said Finberg, who also is an adjunct professor at the University of California’s Hastings College of Law.

    Plaintiffs’ attorneys also said they expect to see more claims like Holcomb’s, because the number of interracial marriages is growing.

    U.S. Census Bureau figures show that between 2000 and 2006, the number of interracial marriages grew 55.3 percent to nearly 2.3 million, while the total number of marriages grew about 2.7 percent to 50.2 million.

    "One of the most disliked areas of racial integration is in love, sex and marriage," said John Brittain, chief counsel and senior deputy director for the Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, a Washington-based organization created at the request of President Kennedy in 1963.

    That bias, which is evident in white and black cultures, has decreased since the Supreme Court struck down interracial marriage bans in Loving v. Virginia, a landmark 1967 case, "but it’s still prevalent," Brittain says.

    But having a relationship with someone of a different race is not enough for an employee to win a discrimination case, he said. The employer must have known about the relationship and made it "a factor in the workplace," he said.

    For example, Brittain, a former college dean, says Iona’s decision to bar Holcomb’s wife from booster events is problematic for the school, because it is "counter to most academic practices."