November 9, 2021

Employment Law

Understanding Associational Discrimination in Employment Law and Identifying Potential Cases – Minnesota and Federal Laws

Federal and state laws prohibit “associational discrimination” in employment. What this means is no employer may retaliate against you on the basis of your relationship with a person based on race, religion, disability, sexual orientation or other protected classification. This article will explain the basics of this infrequently litigated legal claim and help you to identify potential cases in your workplace.

What does the law say about associational discrimination?

The Minnesota Human Rights Act (MHRA) prohibits reprisal against an employee because the person is “associated with a person or group of persons who are disabled or who are of different race, color, creed, religion, sexual orientation, or national origin.” Minn. Stat. § 363A.15. Reprisal for this purpose includes not just the usual “adverse employment” actions such as termination, demotion, refusal to hire, transfer to a less desirable position or location, but also the act of informing another employer of the employee’s legally protected association.

Federal laws, including Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Americans with Disabilities Act, contain similar protections. Although Title VII does not have specific language concerning associational discrimination as is found in the MHRA, federal courts have interpreted it to be a type of unlawful reprisal, including most recently in July 2021 in the Third Circuit Court of Appeals case Kengerski v. Harper (2021).

What does associational discrimination look like?

Only a handful of court decisions have addressed claims of associational discrimination in Minnesota. One Federal Court case, Lopez v. Construction and Bldg. Materials, Drivers, Helpers and Inside Employees Union (D. Minn. 2006) involved a longtime union business agent and officer of mixed Hispanic and Anglo heritage, Plaintiff Daniel Lopez, who in the course of his job duties, earned a reputation for advocating on behalf of women and African American employees. He alleged, among other things, that a union leader rebuked him as follows: “Don’t keep pissing everyone off at the Main Plant anymore by saving those worthless black drivers.”

Following a particularly contentious union election, Lopez was fired for alleged “political disloyalty.” Lopez sued thereafter claiming discrimination on the basis of race and associational discrimination. Following discovery, the Defendant Union moved for summary judgment seeking dismissal of the case. The Court denied the Union’s motion, allowing the case to proceed to trial. Noting a lack of guidance from the Minnesota courts, the Court looked to analogous cases from courts in other federal circuits and held that retaliation for advocating on behalf of co-workers who are members of a protected class constitutes associational discrimination—even if doing so is part of your job duties. For summary judgment purposes, Lopez satisfied the difficult causation element—proving that his protected activity was a motivating factor his firing—based on the closeness in time between announcing his support for minorities at a meeting and his firing, along with conflicting reasons given by the employer for the firing.

On the other hand, the Court in Kennedy v. Heritage of Edina, Inc. (D. Minn. 2014) dismissed the claims of a housekeeper employed by a home healthcare company who asserted, among other claims, that she was terminated because her son suffers from sickle cell anemia. In this case, the court concluded the plaintiff failed to provide evidence linking her son’s condition with the termination. Her claim that the defendant failed to accommodate her scheduling requests to allow for care of her son was insufficient as a matter of law, because the Americans with Disabilities Act does not require “reasonable accommodations” to care for others. Rather the requested accommodations must be directed to the employee’s own disabilities, so as to facilitate his/her return to work.


“Association” for purposes of associational discrimination can mean many things. It can be friendship/dating, family relationship or even being an advocate for co-workers. The challenge in all these cases is linking the association to an adverse employment action. Smoking gun evidence rarely exists. Most supervisors would not typically expose themselves to liability by saying what they think: “I’ve learned that you’re dating someone who is _________, so unfortunately we’ll need to let you go.” Therefore, it’s important to carefully document troubling things that happen in the workplace.

Contact Our Minnesota Employment Lawyers

If you feel you have been the target for discrimination on the basis of your association with someone of a protected class, please contact the experience employment lawyers at Ballion Thome PLC for a free initial consultation.