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Posted on Thursday, April 11, 2013

National Origin Employment Discrimination Covers Europeans

Recently, a federal judge in Virginia was presented with the novel legal issue of whether someone of European descent is covered under the national origin protections of Title VII of the federal Civil Rights Act.

A Caucasian professor with a Ph.D. from Harvard applied for several different teaching positions at Northern Virginia Community College.  Each time a minority candidate was selected over him: first, a native of India; second, a native of Korea; third, a native of Senegal; and fourth, another native of India.  The community college said he was not selected for the positions because he did not provide enough evidence of outstanding teaching skills.  The professor countered by citing his prior teaching positions at Harvard, Georgetown, Johns Hopkins, and The Naval Academy.
The professor sued the community college for discrimination based on national origin, claiming that his European ancestry was viewed as a negative at Northern Virginia Community College where minorities make up the majority of the student body.  The community college countered that European does not constitute a protected national origin under federal discrimination law because there is such a variation of cultures among the countries of Europe.

A federal judge in Alexandria agreed with the professor that European is a protected class.  The court reasoned that despite differences from one country to the next, Europe has enough commonality in terms of people, culture and linguistics to make it an identifiable place of national origin.

This turned out to be a pyrrhic victory for the professor, however, because the court ultimately found against him on his substantive discrimination claim against Northern Virginia Community College.  The court concluded that despite his Ivy League credentials, the professor failed to provide enough peer references and prior teaching accolades compared with the candidates who were ultimately chosen over him.

Declan Leonard is managing partner of the Washington, DC regional business law firm Berenzweig Leonard, LLP. He can be reached at DLeonard@BerenzweigLaw.com.

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