It is common knowledge that Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (Title VII) prohibits employment discrimination on the basis of an employee’s protected characteristic, such as race, color, religion, sex and national origin. What remained unsettled law in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit (encompassing Pennsylvania, New Jersey and Delaware) until this summer was whether Title VII prohibited action taken against an employee because of that employee’s association with someone of a different protected characteristic.
By way of background, unlike the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990, which in the statutory language prohibits discrimination against an individual because of a known relationship or association with an individual with a disability, no such explicit prohibition is found in the text of Title VII. Instead, the plain language of Title VII is limited to barring discrimination because of an individual’s protected characteristics. An increasing number of federal circuit courts, however, now including the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit, have interpreted this contrast in statutory text to be a distinction without a difference and have held discrimination on the basis of association is prohibited by Title VII.