Marital Status Discrimination Claim Defeated

 

By Roger S. Achille July 9, 2019
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​The 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals dismissed a former employee's discrimination and retaliation claims because she could not show that her termination occurred because she opposed discrimination based on marital status.

A medical equipment company in St. Paul, Minn., employed the plaintiff as a lead customer service representative. In 2013, the company approved her for intermittent leave under the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) so she could support her husband, who had severe bipolar disorder. In August 2015, the company's management announced changes to its customer service department that required the plaintiff to accept a demotion by assuming the responsibilities of a regular customer service representative. The plaintiff called her husband, who became angry and threatened to come to the office to talk to the CEO about the changes.

Worried about her husband, the plaintiff asked to take FMLA leave for the afternoon. Co-workers reported that as the plaintiff prepared to leave, she said she had "had it with this place" and cursed loudly within earshot of customers. The CEO prepared a written warning for the plaintiff, saying that the reported behavior would not be tolerated, and failure to observe workplace rules would result in further discipline, including termination.

The CEO summoned the plaintiff to meet with him. At that time, the plaintiff disputed using profanity and explained that she left frantically because she was worried about her husband. When the CEO responded that it always seemed like she had an excuse, the plaintiff accused him of using her husband's disability against her by accusing her of acting unprofessionally after going home on FMLA leave. The CEO told her never to accuse him of discriminating against her because of her husband's condition and that if she "truly felt that way … she would be better off working elsewhere."

According to the plaintiff, company officials observed that she and her family were unhappy and said, "Maybe we can find an exit strategy." As the plaintiff left the meeting, she muttered the company's motto—"Enriching lives"—in a disparaging way. Upon hearing that remark, the CEO fired the plaintiff.

[SHRM members-only toolkit: Involuntary Termination of Employment in the United States]

The plaintiff alleged that the company retaliated against her for opposing discrimination based on marital status under the Minnesota Human Rights Act (MHRA), which includes "protection against discrimination on the basis of the identity, situation, actions or beliefs of a spouse." The plaintiff's claim under the MHRA required her to establish that the company took an adverse employment action against her and that there was a causal connection between her protected activity or status and the adverse action.

Although a person engages in protected conduct when opposing a practice forbidden by the MHRA, the 8th Circuit noted that not every complaint about alleged unlawful discrimination is protected. At a minimum, the court declared, the employee must have a good-faith, reasonable belief that the conduct she opposed was a violation of the MHRA. The alleged protected conduct in this case was the plaintiff's complaint that the CEO, by issuing the written warning, was discriminating against her because of her marital status—namely, that she was married to a person with a mental illness.

The court remarked that the CEO had received reports from company staff that the plaintiff caused a scene in the office, made disparaging remarks about the company and used profanity that could be overheard by co-workers and customers. That the plaintiff's outburst may have been triggered in part by her husband's situation did not support a reasonable belief that the CEO issued the written warning because of her marital status, the court explained.

Harrell v. Handi Medical Supply Inc., 8th Cir., No. 17-3349 (April 9, 2019).

Professional Pointer: When considering discipline, an employer should conduct a thorough investigation, maintain all relevant documentation and ensure there is consistent enforcement of policies.

Roger S. Achille is an attorney and a professor at Johnson & Wales University in Providence, R.I.

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