Firing of Son-in-Law Not Marital Status Discrimination

By Joanne Deschenaux, J.D. September 20, 2017
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Firing of Son-in-Law Not Marital Status Discrimination

​An employee who was fired from his job by his mother-in-law, the company CEO, after he and his wife began having marital problems could not bring a claim for marital status discrimination in violation of California's Fair Employment and Housing Act (FEHA), the California Court of Appeal ruled.

FEHA's ban on discrimination based on marital status is intended to prevent discrimination against classes of people and does not extend to the status of being married to a particular person, the court said.

The plaintiff worked in the San Francisco office of Friendship House Association of American Indians Inc., which ran a drug and alcohol rehabilitation program providing treatment services to Native Americans, as did the plaintiff's mother-in-law, who was the CEO. She started volunteering at Friendship House when she was 19 years old, then became a paid employee and ultimately the CEO. The plaintiff began working for the program in 1994 and ultimately became the second-most senior manager and was considered a high-performing employee.

In 2000, the plaintiff married the CEO's daughter, who had participated in the treatment program prior to 2000 and then worked for the program as a counselor from 2009-15. In March 2014, the plaintiff and his wife began having marital difficulties. She stated that he had become distant and that he was withdrawing large sums of money from their retirement fund.

Late one evening in May 2016, the plaintiff's wife called her mother at home. His wife reported that the plaintiff had a gun, was angry with the employees of Friendship House, was dangerous and had relapsed on drugs. The following day, the CEO placed the plaintiff on paid administrative leave. His wife, in turn, obtained a temporary restraining order against him and provided the CEO with a copy. The CEO subsequently fired the plaintiff.

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

The plaintiff sued, claiming that he was fired solely on the basis of his marital status, in violation of FEHA. The trial court granted summary judgment in favor of the employer, dismissing the case before trial. The plaintiff appealed.

Law Protects Classes of People, Not Particular Relationships

While laws prohibiting marital status discrimination are intended to prevent discrimination against classes of people, they do not extend to the status of being married to a particular person, the court said.

According to the court, examples of marital discrimination include:

  • Refusing to hire unwed mothers because they are unwed.
  • Refusing to hire single people because they are single.
  • Granting maternity leave to married employees only.

But, for example, when a store employee was fired because her husband was a police officer who had participated in the arrest of the store owner's wife, the employee could not pursue a marital status discrimination claim, the court noted.

Similarly, the plaintiff's claim was predicated not on alleged animus toward the married state itself but on particular facts about his spouse. He claimed he was treated differently from other employees not because he was married but because he happened to be married to the CEO's daughter.

He claimed that by firing him, the CEO was attempting to influence a custody dispute involving her granddaughter. This, the court said, was simply an assertion that the CEO sided with her daughter on a child custody issue, which was a "family dynamics problem," not a marital status discrimination problem. It was the identity of the employee's wife—not the marital status—that led to the discharge, the court said.

The appellate court affirmed the trial court's dismissal of the claim.

Nakai v. Friendship House Association of American Indians Inc., Calif. Ct. App., No. A147966 (Sept. 5, 2017).

Professional Pointer: While federal law does not prohibit bias on the basis of an employee's or applicant's marital status, almost half of the states and the District of Columbia have banned this type of discrimination. However, most of these states, including California, distinguish between decisions based on an employee's status—whether the employee is married—and decisions based on the identity of the employee's spouse.

Joanne Deschenaux, J.D., is a freelance writer based in Annapolis, Md.

 

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