Court OKs Firing of Wife After Husband Quit During Investigation

 

By Jeffrey Rhodes May 15, 2019
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The wife of a county sheriff, who worked as a jailer and dispatcher at the sheriff's office, did not have a valid legal claim when the county fired her after her husband resigned during a sexual harassment investigation, a federal appeals court held.

The plaintiff began working for the sheriff's office of Decatur County, Iowa (DCSO) in November 1996 as a jailer and dispatcher. A new sheriff was elected and started working for the DCSO in March 1998. In January 2008, the plaintiff married the sheriff and continued working for the sheriff's office. The office had no policy against them working together as a married couple.

In November 2015, the DCSO received a complaint from a female dispatcher who alleged that the sheriff had sexually harassed her. An investigation followed and uncovered additional allegations of harassment. The county hired a former criminal prosecutor to prepare a petition to remove the sheriff, which was supported by affidavits from six DCSO employees.

When the prosecutor presented the sheriff with the petition for removal, the sheriff immediately resigned. That same day, the prosecutor advised the new acting sheriff that he should consider placing the sheriff's wife on administrative leave. The prosecutor was concerned that problems might arise if the plaintiff was allowed to remain working around employees whom her husband had harassed and who had signed affidavits in support of her husband's removal from office.

The acting sheriff agreed and placed the plaintiff on indefinite administrative leave. Shortly thereafter, the acting sheriff officially discharged her.

On June 6, 2016, the plaintiff filed suit under 42 U.S.C. Section 1983, alleging retaliation under the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. She alleged that Decatur County and the acting sheriff, in his individual and official capacity, violated her First Amendment right to intimate association by firing her simply because she was married to the former sheriff. The acting sheriff and Decatur County moved for summary judgment arguing that the acting sheriff was entitled to qualified immunity and that Decatur County was not liable for his actions.

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

The district court denied their motion, finding that the acting sheriff was not entitled to qualified immunity because the plaintiff's marriage was a motivating factor in his decision to fire the plaintiff and that Decatur County could be subject to municipal liability because the acting sheriff's decision to fire the plaintiff might have amounted to an unconstitutional custom, practice or policy of the county.

The defendants appealed the decision to the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. On appeal, the 8th Circuit considered a prior decision in which it rejected a claim by a male police officer who was fired because his wife and daughter had plotted to frame the chief of police.

In that case, the court recognized that the right to intimate association protects the formation and preservation of highly personal relationships such as marriage. But the right is violated only when the government directly and substantially interferes with the right to enter and maintain a marital relationship. To substantially interfere with the right to marry, a state action must significantly discourage a marriage, make a marriage practically impossible or act with the goal of poisoning a marriage. The court concluded that the decision to terminate a police officer on the basis of his wife's conduct did not violate his First Amendment rights.

Based on that case law, the 8th Circuit decided that the plaintiff's termination did not amount to a constitutional violation. The fact that the plaintiff's marriage was a motivating factor in the decision to fire her did not mean that the firing directly and substantially interfered with their marriage. Rather, the plaintiff's discharge only had a collateral effect on the plaintiff and her family decisions.

The 8th Circuit thus reversed the district court's decision on summary judgment and entered final judgment in favor of the defendants.

Muir v. Decatur County, 8th Cir., No. 18-1057 (March 8, 2019).

Professional Pointer: Companies employing married or related workers must carefully avoid adverse treatment of one for the protected conduct of another, as it may constitute retaliation. But retaliation generally does not apply to employer actions to limit the employment or influence of a spouse or relative of an employee found to have engaged in workplace misconduct.

Jeffrey Rhodes is an attorney with Doumar Martin in Arlington, Va.

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