Circuit Sees 'Intimate Association' Right in Engagement

, New York Law Journal

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Anita Starks Matusick and Scott Matusick
Anita Starks Matusick and her husband Scott Matusick in 2010 after Scott won a lawsuit against the Erie County Water Authority.

A couple's engagement qualifies as the type of "intimate association" protected by the First Amendment under U.S. Supreme Court case law, a federal appeals court ruled Monday.

A divided U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit made new law by interpreting the U.S. Supreme Court decision of Roberts v. United States Jaycees, 468 U.S. 609 (1984), to recognize an "intimate association right in betrothal."

Judges Robert Sack (See Profile) and Raymond Lohier (See Profile) were in the majority in Matusick v. Erie County Water Authority, 11-1234, a case where a white man claimed he was fired from his job because he had become engaged to, and was living with, a black woman.

Judge Reena Raggi (See Profile) dissented, saying the majority was on shaky ground in its interpretation of Roberts, where the Supreme Court recognized a right of intimate association distinct from the right of expressive association under the First Amendment, saying the right protects "the formation and preservation of certain kinds of highly personal relationships."

The Roberts court said the "affiliations" that might be entitled to constitutional protection "are those that attend the creation and sustenance of a family—marriage, childbirth, the raising and education of children and the cohabitation with one's relatives."

In the Second Circuit's opinion Monday, Sack wrote that Roberts did not say that marriage was the only "intimate association" shielded from state interference by the First Amendment.

"The Roberts Court's reference to traditional familial relationships, most notably marriage, has led some courts to conclude that the right does not extend to romantic relationships beyond marriage," Sack said. "We think this is an unduly narrow reading of Roberts. The Court did not suggest that constitutional protections extended only to the relationships it enumerated."

Plaintiff Scott Matusick, who is white, became engaged to Anita Starks, a black woman, in 2004, and the two moved in together in 2005 and were married in 2009.

Matusick worked at the Erie County Water Authority (ECWA), beginning in 1992. He was a dispatcher in 2004 when he claimed that one of his supervisors and some coworkers harassed him, using racial epithets and threatening him about his relationship with Starks.

Matusick charged that this racial animus led the authority to discipline him and ultimately terminate him on the pretext that he repeatedly blocked a security monitoring camera so he could be unobserved, slept or watched television on the job and failed to promptly respond to complaints of water line breaks.

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