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Does Employment Discrimination Law Protect Employees Who Maintain Friendships With Persons Of A Different Race?

Multicultural Diverse Society

For the past two decades, our Citrus County, Florida racial discrimination attorneys have fought for the rights of racial discrimination victims. Through their extensive experience representing racial discrimination victims, our Inverness, Florida racial discrimination lawyers know that a common employment law myth is that federal employment law does not forbid employers from discriminating against an employee because he or she maintains friendships with persons of a different race. In this article, our Citrus County, Florida racial discrimination lawyers explain how the decision in Barrett v. Whirlpool Corp., 556 F.3d 502 (6th Cir. 2009) illustrates that federal employment discrimination law prohibits employers from discriminating against an employee because he or she maintains friendships with persons of a different race.

Interracial Association Discrimination

Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (Title VII) protects employees from racial discrimination. In construing the scope of Title VII’s protection against racial discrimination, courts have recognized that employees are protected from discriminated based on their interracial association with a person of a different race. Thus, Title VII’s prohibition of discrimination against employee because of the employee’s race encompasses discrimination based on an employee’s association with a person of a different race. In other words, Title VII forbids discrimination against an employee because of the employee’s association with a person of a different race.

The majority of discrimination claims based on an interracial association involve close familial relationships between an employee and a person of a different race, such as interracial parent-child relationship and interracial marriage. However, close familial relationships are not necessary to bring a successful discrimination claim based on an interracial association. For example, courts have extended protection from interracial association discrimination to an interracial dating relationship, an interracial friendship, and an interracial grand-niece relationship.

Racial Discrimination Lawsuit

In Barrett, a woman named Barrett, who is white, brought a race discrimination claim against her former employer, Whirlpool Corporation (Whirlpool), pursuant to Title VII. Barrett maintained that she worked in a racial hostile work environment based on her interracial friendships with African-American co-workers. Barrett worked as a technician in the refrigerator department at Whirlpool’s plant in Tennessee.

During her employment, Barrett heard a white co-worker named Travis, who had an alleged history of racially harassing behavior, make three racist comments about African-American employees, including racial slurs. Barrett reported the racist remarks to her supervisor, who said that she “would take care of it,” but Barrett does not know if her supervisor took any action. Barrett told Travis that she did not like his language, and he responded that he had a nine-millimeter gun. As a result, Barrett feared that Travis might harm her for reporting other racist remarks. Ultimately, Whirlpool fired Travis for excessive absenteeism.

In further support of her racial hostile work environment harassment claim, Barrett alleges that she heard a white supervisor state, around the time of Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, there should be a “James Earl Ray Day.” Barrett also saw two instances of racist graffiti in the restroom at Whirlpool, including racial slurs and a picture of a noose.

Barrett was friendly toward African-American employees on the assembly line, and she alleges that, as a result, four white co-workers “gave [her] the cold shoulder,” “snubbed” her, refused to provide her with work-related assistance, and would not talk to her. According to Barrett, the four white co-workers would turn their backs on her when she spoke to an African-American employee but would smile at her when she was speaking to a white employee.

Interracial Friendships Protected

The trial court dismissed Barrett’s associational discrimination claim. The trial court found that Barrett had not shown a sufficient level of closeness with African-American employees to sustain an associational discrimination claim. Rather, according to the trial court, Barrett had merely shown that she was friendly with some African-American co-workers while at work. In justifying dismissal of Barrett’s claim based on an insufficient degree of closeness between Barrett and her African-American co-workers, the trial court without any supporting authority grafted a “significant association” requirement into Title VII that employees must satisfy to have a viable Title VII interracial association discrimination claim. In other words, the trial court determined that Title VII did not protect Barrett from interracial association discrimination because her friendships with her African-American employees constituted nothing more “than the casual, friendly relationships that commonly develop among co-workers but that tend to be limited to the workplace.”

On appeal, the U.S. Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals rejected the trial court’s attempt to graft a “significant association” requirement into Title VII and ruled that the trial court “erred in requiring a certain degree of association before an [ ] employee may assert a viable claim under Title VII” for interracial association discrimination. “The degree of association is irrelevant,” the appellate court determined, to whether Title VII protects an employee from discrimination based on an interracial association. Thus, the “absence of a relationship outside of work should not immunize the conduct of harassers who target an employee because she associates with African-American co-workers.” Although “one might expect the degree of association to correlate with the likelihood . . . discrimination on the basis of that association,” the appellate court reasoned, there is no specific degree of closeness which must be satisfied for an employee to have a viable claim for interracial association discrimination. Consequently, the Sixth Circuit ruled that Title VII protected Barrett from discrimination because she maintained friendships with African-American co-workers, regardless of whether such friendships could be characterized as “casual, friendly relationships” limited to the workplace.

Free Consultation For Discrimination Victims

One of the most important decisions employment discrimination victims must make is which employment law firm to contact for legal advice regarding their legal rights. As part of our commitment to protecting and vindicating the rights of employment discrimination victims, an experienced employment law attorney will speak with you personally and you will receive the individualized attention your case deserves. We offer free confidential case evaluations for employees, and you will not have to pay to speak with our employment law attorneys regarding your employee rights. We are available for consultation at your convenience, including scheduling telephone consultations for evenings and weekends.

Citrus County Racial Discrimination Lawyers

Based in Ocala, Florida and representing workers throughout Florida, our racial discrimination attorneys in Citrus County, Florida have litigated racial discrimination cases in Florida courts for more than twenty years. If you have experienced race discrimination in the workplace or have questions about your rights as a victim of workplace racial discrimination, please contact our office for a free consultation with our racial discrimination lawyers in Citrus County, Florida. Our employee rights law firm takes racial discrimination cases on a contingency fee basis. This means that there are no attorney’s fees incurred unless there is a recovery and our attorney’s fees come solely from the monetary award that you recover.

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