New York Takes an Expansive Approach on "Protected Class" Definition

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In Chiara v. Town of New Castle, decided on January 14, 2015, a New York state appellate court provided a broad interpretation of the definition of a “protected class,” allowing a plaintiff to allege employment discrimination based on the religion of his spouse rather than his own religious beliefs.

The plaintiff alleged, among other things, employment discrimination in violation of New York state law, basing the claim on his wife’s religion. Specifically, the plaintiff, whose wife was Jewish, alleged that a co-worker discriminated against him by making anti-Semitic remarks in the plaintiff’s presence and by making derogatory remarks about the plaintiff’s marriage based on his wife’s religion.

The defendants moved for summary judgment, alleging that the plaintiff’s claim for employment discrimination was flawed in that the plaintiff himself was not a member of a protected class, rather, his wife was a member of a protected class. The plaintiff claimed he was a member of a protected class by virtue of his marriage to his wife, relying on his constitutional right of association.

The court reviewed federal law under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and analogized the plaintiff’s position to federal case law that allowed plaintiffs to proceed with claims alleging employment discrimination based on a spouse’s race. The court then reversed the lower court’s dismissal of the plaintiff’s employment discrimination claim, holding that the plaintiff had sufficiently demonstrated his membership to a protected class by virtue of his marriage to a member of a protected class.

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