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Court of Appeals Rules: there is an “Intimate Association Right in Betrothal” – An Employer Cannot Discriminate Against You or Who You Choose to Marry

Plaintiff Scott Matusick, was employed by the Erie County Water Authority as a dispatcher. Plaintiff, who is white claimed he was assaulted, harassed, and ultimately terminated from his employment because of his romantic relationship with African-American woman, Anita Starks, who he was engaged to.

Scott alleged that when his co-workers and supervisor became aware he was dating an African-American woman, they began to treat him in ways completely unexpected in the 21st century. His co-workers and supervisor made visits to his home, death threats and racist comments including use of the “n” word and other stereotypical derogatory comments. Despite complaining to upper management about his treatment, nothing was done. In fact, the situation worsened. Scott began to become served with disciplinary charges and was then terminated, which he believed were all a result of being singled out because of his personal, interracial relationship.

In response to his termination, Scott brought suit under the New York Human Rights Act for racial discrimination and 42 U.S.C. § 1983 for First and Fourteenth Amendment violations. As quoted in the decision, the heart of the factual dispute in this case was “whether Matusick's treatment by the ECWA was motivated in significant part by discriminatory intent or whether it was purely a consequence of his failure to perform his duties as a dispatcher. To support their position at trial, the defendants introduced evidence regarding Matusick's long and serious history of disciplinary problems.”

Despite finding that Scott did have a history of some disciplinary problems, the Second-Circuit panel ultimately recognized that Scott had a right to betrothal, a Due Process/First Amendment right-of-intimate-association claim for two people engaged.

Although existing law protects marital relationships, there was a unique issue here because Scott was not married at the time of his termination; rather he was only engaged and co-habiting. Although he won at trial, ECWA appealed relying partly on the fact that he was not entitled to protection under the law because he was “betrothed,” not married.

On January 6, 2014, the U.S. Court of Appeals’ decision in this case established new law that recognizing an "intimate association right in betrothal." Matusick v. Erie Cnty. Water Auth., et al., No. 11‐1234 (2d Cir. Jan. 6, 2014). Rather than assuming that existing law limited protection only to familial relationships, which generally refers to marital status and married couples, here the court held that a relationship of betrothal constitutes an expression of one's choice protected by Due Process and First Amendment rights. The panel majority wrote under the authority of Roberts v. United States Jaycees, 468 U.S. 609 (1984), that

"Matusickʹs betrothal to Starks under the circumstances presented here constituted an intimate association, part and parcel of their eventual marriage and entitled to similar protection under the First Amendment. Considering Matusickʹs interests in preserving and protecting his intimate espousal relationship with Starks, we conclude that the conduct that he alleges that the ECWA and the individual defendants committed violated his constitutional right to intimate association."

The court further extended the analysis in Roberts, holding that the right in Roberts goes beyond “familial relationship:”

"Rather than setting forth an exclusive and definitive list, the Court instead spoke to relationships that 'involve deep attachments and commitments to the necessarily few other individuals with whom one shares not only a special community of thoughts, experience, and beliefs but also distinctively personal aspects of oneʹs life.' 468 U.S. at 619‐20. The Courtʹs specific reference to marital relationships therefore should not, we think, be viewed as a formalistic recognition of a particular, narrow legal status entitled to protection. Rather, at least to the extent that a relationship of betrothal constitutes an expression of oneʹs choice of marital partner, it shares the qualities ascribed by the Roberts court to marriage and other protected forms of intimate association.

In the lower court, the jury returned a verdict finding that Scott was terminated from his job because of his inter-racial engagement to an African American woman. The Court of Appeals affirmed liability and $304, 775 in back pay and $5,000 in punitive damages. Although this court did not affirm liability against the individual defendants on Matusick’s section 1983 claim or allow the punitive damages to apply to the individual defendants, the court did affirm liability against the ECWA in the amount of $304, 775 in back pay and $5,000 in punitive damages.

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