On January 14, 2015, in a case of first impression, the New York Supreme Court, Appellate Division, Second Department held that an employee can sufficiently demonstrate his membership in a protected class by virtue of his association with another person – in this case, his wife.  In Jeffrey Chiara v. Town of New Castle, 2015 Slip Op. 00326 (2d Dep’t Jan. 14, 2015), the Second Department held that Chiara could show he was discriminated against by the Town of New Castle based on religion as a result of his marriage to a Jewish person, even though he was not Jewish himself.  In so holding, the Second Department reversed the lower court’s grant of summary judgment to the Town with respect to Chiara’s claim that he was subject to religious discrimination when he was terminated.

Brief Description of the Facts and Procedural History

Starting in 1992, Chiara began working for the Town of New Castle.  Chiara, who is not Jewish, is married to a Jewish woman.  Shortly after commencing work, Chiara claimed that coworkers began making derogatory remarks about the Jewish religion.  Chiara informed his coworkers that his wife is Jewish but over several years those and other coworkers continued to make anti-Semitic comments in the workplace.  In June 2006, the Town brought disciplinary charges against Chiara for misconduct and insubordination.  After administrative hearings regarding the disciplinary charges, a hearing officer concluded and recommended that Chiara be terminated.  Accordingly, in 2007, the Town terminated Chiara’s employment.  After being terminated, Chiara commenced court proceedings against the Town for, among other things, alleged discrimination and hostile work environment based on religion.  The trial court granted summary judgment to the Town, finding that legitimate business reasons existed for Chiara’s termination and his contention of discrimination by the Town based on his wife’s religion was nothing more than conjecture.

Second Department’s Decision

On plaintiff’s appeal to the Supreme Court, Appellate Division, Second Department, the Town argued that Chiara could not establish the first element of a prima facie case of discrimination, i.e., that he was a member of a protected class because he was not himself a member of the Jewish faith.  The Town argued that no authority existed under the New York State Human Rights Law to support a claim of discrimination based upon the religious belief of plaintiff’s spouse.  Despite acknowledging the lack of authority, the Court still held that Chiara could bring a claim for discrimination based on the religion of his wife.

In issuing its decision, the Second Department found that discrimination claims under the New York Human Rights Law, N.Y. Executive Law § 296, are analytically similar to claims under Title VII.  Title VII, the Court found, has been interpreted by several United States Courts of Appeal to permit suits by employees based on their association with other individuals.  The Court relied on several federal circuit court decisions, including the Second Circuit’s decision in Holcomb v. Iona College, 521 F.3d 130, 132 (2d Cir. 2008), which held that an employer may violate Title VII if it takes action against an employee because of the employee’s association with a person of another race.  According to the Second Department, therefore, the State Human Rights Law would be interpreted as broadly as the federal statute and permitted the plaintiff to proceed with his claim.

Based on this New York appellate court’s decision, employers covered only by the New York Human Rights Law should be mindful of the protection against discrimination afforded to an employee based on that employee’s association with someone in a protected class even when that employee may not fall within a protected category.  In addition, while this decision may not significantly change the legal landscape applicable to employers which are covered by Title VII, because the New York Human Rights Law protects categories beyond that protected under federal law (e.g. sexual orientation, marital status, arrest and conviction record, etc.), even those employers covered by Title VII should consider its impact.