Matusick v. ECWA – Right to Intimate Association Upheld

Decided: Second Circuit, January 6, 2014.

In this case, involving racial discrimination, a hostile work environment and ultimately termination, the Second Circuit affirmed the right to intimate association free of racial discrimination. The Plaintiff, Mr. Matusick claimed, and a jury agreed, that one of his supervisors and several co-workers had engaged in a prolonged campaign of severe racial discrimination against him based on the romantic relationship between Mr. Matusick, a Caucasian man, and Ms. Starks, an African-American woman. The offenders harassed Mr. Matusick and frequently used the “N” word against him, Ms. Starks, and Ms. Starks’s children.

Although the harassment was based on the color of the Plaintiff’s fiancée’s skin and not his own, the Court agreed that this conduct was illegal racial discrimination.

After the case went trial, a jury found that Mr. Matusick’s employer – the Erie County Water Authority (ECWA), a New York state agency – and several upper level ECWA employees were liable for racial discrimination and unlawful termination of Mr. Matusick.

The Second Circuit confirmed the jury’s verdict that ECWA was liable for unlawful termination and racial discrimination. The Constitution protects an individual’s right to intimate association, and the Second Circuit concluded that romantic relationships such as the engagement between Mr. Matusick and Ms. Starks are protected by this right. Mr. Matusick’s employer simply had no justification for interfering in his intimate relationship. The Court added that individuals also have a right to free from race discrimination on the basis of “racial affiliation,” or association with members of a particular race or ethnicity, as discussed by the Supreme Court in its 1984 decision, Bob Jones University v. United States, 461 U.S. 574.

The Court also agreed that Matusick’s employer was liable for the discrimination since Matusick’s superiors, including his other supervisors and the Director of the agency, and many human resources personnel were aware of his complaint but took little action to investigate or respond to the harassment.

The Supreme Court struck down bans on interracial marriage in 1967 in the landmark case of Loving v. Virginia, 388 U.S. 1. However, this case demonstrates that hostility against interracial relationships remains pervasive even today. The Second Circuit has made clear that racially-based harassment based on an individual’s romantic relationship is racial discrimination.