What Is Associational Discrimination?

Under federal and most state civil rights laws, protected classes can extend beyond the protected class to those individuals who are associated with the individuals in those classes. The association can be clear and obvious, such as between spouses, or family members, but can even be applied to friends, co-workers, and attorneys.

For instance, when a person in a wheelchair and a companion are denied access to a restaurant because the restaurant does not have a wheelchair accessible entry, both will have valid discrimination claims against the business under the ADA. Clearly the wheelchair user suffered the adverse effects of the discrimination directly, but their companion also was independently harmed by the discrimination as well, as they were denied the ability to enter the business with their companion.

Discrimination for Participation

For individuals that participate in, or belong to, groups that are organized along a protected class, if they face discrimination for associating with that particular group, this can be actionable as associational discrimination. For instance, a straight man that joins a pro-LGBT group could have an individual claim for sexual orientation discrimination by association if they are fired from their job, or otherwise discriminated against, for joining the group.

However, formal participation is not required. Just being friends with, or supporting, an employee that's been discriminated against, and then facing discrimination or retaliation yourself, creates your own individual claim for associational discrimination.

Additionally, if a person participates in an investigation into discrimination, or files a complaint, they cannot be retaliated against for doing so (so long as the participatory activity was in good faith).

False Association and Inaccurate Discrimination Is Actionable

Interestingly, some people will face discrimination due to characteristics they do not even possess. This is frequently seen when ethnic minorities are harassed using incorrect slurs or terminology. It can also occur when a person who is not disabled, is regarded as such, and faces disability discrimination due to that misperception. Discrimination does not need to be accurate to be harmful, nor to be actionable under the law.

Retaliation for Protesting Civil Rights Violation

When an individual stands up for another's civil rights, then faces discrimination themselves, even if they do not belong to the protected class they were attempting to stand up for, they will likely be protected by same anti-discrimination law due to association, in addition to a potential retaliation claim.

In fact, attorneys that represent clients in civil rights claims can have their own civil rights claims if they face retaliation as a result of their representation (i.e. being denied entry into a public accommodation that an attorney is suing for ADA accessibility issues).

Genetic Information Discrimination

This type of discrimination specifically protects an individual from discrimination based on the health and genetics of their family. This means that an employer cannot terminate an employee because they know that everyone in their family has herpes, or some other unfashionable ailment.

If you believe you've been the victim of discrimination at your workplace, reaching out to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, or your state equivalent agency, as well as contacting a civil rights attorney, are important first steps to take.

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