Tuesday, February 5, 2008

Don't confuse "family status" for "family responsibility discrimination"

I've blogged a lot on "family responsibility discrimination," which is discrimination against parents or caregivers because of their status as such. "Family responsibility" or "caregiver status", however, are not protected classes in and of themselves. They are only illegal if the alleged conduct otherwise violates Title VII or the ADA. In other words, the law prohibits discrimination on the basis of race, sex, religion, national origin, ancestry, color, age, and disability. Thus, for example, it is not illegal to discriminate against all parents because of their parental status, but only if you treat moms differently than dads, or black parents differently than white parents, or parents of disabled children different than parents of non-disabled children.

Adamson v. Multi Cmty. Diversified Servs., Inc. clarifies this important distinction. In that case, decided last week by the 10th Circuit, the plaintiffs, a husband, wife, and daughter who were terminated by a non-profit organization, claimed that "familial status" is a protected classification under Title VII. The Court rejected that argument:

Title VII protects neither the family unit nor individual family members from discrimination based on their "familial status" alone…. "Familial status" is not a classification based on sex any more than is being a "sibling" or "relative" generally. It is, by definition, gender neutral. The use of gender to parse those classifications into subcategories of "husbands, wives and daughters" is a social and linguistic convention that neither alters this fact nor elevates those subcategories to protected status. Mr. Adamson’s claim that he was terminated in violation of Title VII based on his status as Patricia's "husband" (and Jessica's "father"), and Patricia and Jessica's claims that they were terminated by virtue of being Barry's "wife" and "daughter," respectively, fall outside the scope of Title VII and its purpose in protecting employees against invidious discrimination on the basis of sex, and we reject those claims….

Thus, an employer that discriminates against an individual solely on the basis of his or her "familial status" violates no law, unless the discrimination is tied to some specific protected class.