Tuesday, April 1, 2008

Title VII prohibits termination because of inter-racial marriage

The Second Circuit has held for the first time that the employment discrimination laws are violated when a white employee is fired for being married to a black woman. The case is Holcomb v. Iona College, decided on April 1.

Holcomb was a basketball coach at Iona College in New York. He claims that an Iona official, Brennan, was trying to prevent his black wife from attending public functions attended by Iona College alumni, and that Brennan had made racially derogatory comments about some of the black players. Another college official, Petriccone, also made offensive racial comments about black players in the basketball program, allegedly referring to them as "niggers." As the Second Circuit put it, "Colleagues at Iona testified to Petriccione’s record of what might, charitably, be called racial insensitivity. Egregiously in this respect, Petriccione is said to have referred to a Nigerian employee at the Alumni Giving Office as a 'jungle bunny' and an 'African princess.' When that member of staff applied to his office for the position of Assistant Director of Annual Giving, he remarked: '[W]hat does she think she is coming from a hut in Africa and thinking she could apply for this job?'” In addition, when Petriccione found out that Holcomb was marrying an African-American woman, he allegedly made one of the most offensive comments I've ever seen in a Second Circuit decision.

Iona College eventually fired Holcomb, explaining that his termination had to do with his poor job performance. After the district court granted summary judgment in this wrongful termination case, the case went to the Court of Appeals, which remands this case for trial. The crux of the decision is as follows:

1. Holcomb belongs to a "protected class" under Title VII even though he is not black; since his wife is black and there is evidence that his inter-racial marriage motivated his termination, he may proceed under the employment discrimination laws. Some courts (in the deep south) have disagreed with this analysis, but the Court of Appeals won't have it: "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. All the district judges in this circuit to consider the question, including the district court in this case, have reached that conclusion." Other Circuits have also adopted this view.

2. Holcomb has also produced evidence that he was fired because he was married to a black woman. Here's the reasoning:

The college 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. Moreover, it is plain that Brennan and Petriccione both knew that Holcomb was married to a black woman, and the record suggests that both Brennan and Petriccione played a role in the termination decision. For each of these men, finally, Holcomb has adduced evidence of racially improper motives. As further detailed below, the record permits an inference that Brennan sought to reduce African-American presence at basketball program events for the sake of alumni relations and fundraising. From this perspective, it would make sense for Brennan to want to keep O’Driscoll, as the only white member of the staff without a black girlfriend or spouse, rather than Holcomb. And in the case of Petriccione, there is clearly evidence in the record indicating his disapproval of Holcomb’s marriage to a black woman, and, indeed, of Petriccione’s willingness to act on his disapproval by insulting Holcomb in public.

3. Since the Court of Appeals reverses the grant of summary judgment in this Title VII case, it reminds us that circumstantial evidence is enough to win these cases and that plaintiffs are not required to produce "smoking gun" evidence of racially discriminatory intent. The Court also notes that the discriminatory intent of one decisionmaker up the chain is enough to create liability under Title VII on the theory that the bad link in that chain has infected the process because of race. The Court cites Bickerstaff v. Vassar College, 196 F.3d 435 (2d Cir. 1999) for this proposition. And, since this is a "mixed motives" case, the plaintiff does not have to show that racial discrimination was the only reason for his termination, only that it played a role in the decision. Citing Fields v. N. Y. State Office of Mental Retardation & Developmental Disabilities, 115 F.3d 116, 120 (2d Cir. 1997), the Court of Appeals notes that "A plaintiff alleging that an employment decision was motivated both by legitimate and illegitimate reasons may establish that the 'impermissible factor was a motivating factor, without proving that the employer’s proffered explanation was not some part of the employer’s motivation.'”

Of course, as the Second Circuit states, the jury could render a verdict for the College and reject Holcomb's case, especially since the decisionmakers deny making any racial comments. But there is too much evidence of racial discrimination here for the district court to grant summary judgment. Only a jury can resolve these disputed issues of fact and motive.

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