Recent cases in New York and Pennsylvania demonstrate that, at least in some jurisdictions and under some circumstances, a plaintiff can state a valid claim for unlawful gender discrimination based on a spouse’s jealousy.

Wife Fired Plaintiff Because She Believed Her Husband Was Attracted to Plaintiff

First, late this summer, in Edwards v. Nicolai, a New York appellate court allowed a gender discrimination claim to move forward where the plaintiff claimed that she was terminated because her direct supervisor’s wife – also the Chief Operating Officer of the company – believed that her husband was attracted to plaintiff.

The plaintiff was a yoga massage therapist at a chiropractic and wellness practice jointly owned by a husband and wife team. The husband was plaintiff’s direct supervisor. In her complaint, the plaintiff alleged that her relationship with her supervisor was purely professional and that she regularly received positive performance appraisals. She also noted, however, that he once told her that his wife might become jealous of plaintiff, because plaintiff was “too cute.” A short time later, the wife terminated the plaintiff via text message, directing her to “stay the [expletive] away from my husband and family!” Plaintiff sued the husband and wife for unlawful gender discrimination.

The court distinguished the husband and wife’s reliance on other “spousal jealousy” cases to avoid liability, noting that those cases involved admitted consensual affairs between a supervisor and employee and thus any terminations were prompted by the employee’s own conduct, and not merely by the supervisor’s attraction to an employee (or the perception of such attraction by the supervisor’s spouse). Here, however, the court noted: “It is well established that adverse employment actions motivated by sexual attraction are gender-based and, therefore, constitute unlawful gender discrimination… [defendant husband] was motivated to discharge [plaintiff] by his desire to appease his wife’s unjustified jealousy, and [defendant wife] was motivated to discharge plaintiff by that same jealousy. Thus, each defendant’s motivation to terminate plaintiff’s employment was sexual in nature.”

Wife Had Plaintiff Fired Because She Did Not Want Her Husband Working With Women

Similarly, a few weeks ago, in Sztroin v. PennWest Industrial Truck, a Federal court in Pennsylvania reached a similar result where the plaintiff alleged that she was terminated because the President’s wife did not want him to work closely with women. The plaintiff worked as the Service Operations Manager at a trucking company for nearly five years, reporting directly to the President. The President’s wife was also on the payroll, came into the office weekly, and participated in meetings with employees, customers, and vendors. According to the plaintiff’s complaint, during her employment, the President treated plaintiff differently than her male counterparts – avoiding eye contact with plaintiff, excluding her from key meetings, and directing plaintiff’s subordinate employees to relay important information to her. Eventually, the company’s Vice President instructed plaintiff that she was no longer allowed to enter the President’s office or address him directly in the workplace, and that all communications from her must go through the Vice President. Plaintiff was the only employee at her level directed to communicate through the Vice President, and her male counterparts (and subordinates) frequently spoke to the President directly. Plaintiff’s physical office was also relocated to a smaller cubicle away from the President’s office, she was excluded from a major client meeting and, eventually, plaintiff was instructed not to even email the President. Days later, the President came to plaintiff’s office asking her to perform an assignment because “he knew he could count on her to get the job done,” but instructed plaintiff on his way out that, “I was never here. You didn’t see me.” The plaintiff was subsequently fired, then rehired with a raise, and then fired again, allegedly because the president’s wife did not want him working with women. She was later replaced by a male.

The court found that spousal jealousy may be a lawful reason to terminate an employee, but only where the spouse is jealous of a particular individual, and not an entire gender. The court found that plaintiff in this case had made out a claim for gender discrimination because she alleged that the President’s wife did not want him working with any women, that plaintiff was a woman, and that she was replaced by a male.

Takeaways

Though both of these cases remain pending with the outcomes in doubt, they confirm that at least some courts are not prepared to toss out cases predicated on spousal jealousy. The New York case is the more troubling of the two because, in that case, the plaintiff did not allege that the spouse was hostile to the idea of her spouse working with any person of a certain gender. Instead, the court in that case suggested that concerns over a hypothetical or actual sexual attraction to another employee can serve as a basis for a gender discrimination claim. Can that be right, and, if so, where exactly does one draw the line?

The New York court appeared to be prepared to let the employer off the hook if there had been an “admitted consensual sexual affair[]” between the employee and her supervisor, because it was the employee’s “behavior – not merely the [supervisor’s] attraction to the employee or the perception of such an attraction by the [supervisor’s] spouse – that prompted the termination.” But distinguishing on that basis raises more questions than it answers. For example, when do you cross the “behavioral” line? Does crossing the line require an actual physical relationship? What if the employee expressed that she found her supervisor attractive or otherwise flirted with him – does that satisfy the court’s standard even in the absence of a physical relationship?

Further, we cannot forget that other courts view these cases differently and the debate is not yet settled. For example, several years ago, the Iowa Supreme Court reached the opposite result in Nelson v. James H. Knight DDS, P.C., finding that “such firings do not count as illegal sex discrimination because they are motivated by feelings, not gender.” The link between spousal jealousy and gender discrimination will continue to play out in the courts until a standard is reached on the breadth of spousal jealousy and the law’s protections around it.