New York Court: “Happy Wife, Happy Life” Will Not Shield You From A Wrongful Termination Lawsuit

by:  Peter J. Gallagher (@pjsgallagher) (LinkedIn)

Mr right and mrs always right (pd)I do not have these mugs at home, but I should. Most married men will tell you that the easiest way to avoid trouble at home is to remember that your wife is always right (even on those rare occasions when she is obviously wrong). Sometimes this policy of gratuitous appeasement fails, however, as was the case in a recent decision, Edwards v. Nicolai, from the New York Appellate Division (First Department).

In Edwards, defendants were husband and wife, and co-owners of Wall Street Chiropractic and Wellness. The husband was head chiropractor, while the wife was the chief operating officer. The husband hired defendant as a "yoga and massage therapist," and was her direct supervisor. According to plaintiff, her relationship with the husband was entirely professional and he "regularly praised" her work performance.

A little more than one year after hiring plaintiff, the husband allegedly "informed Plaintiff that his wife might become jealous of Plaintiff, because Plaintiff was too cute." This apparently proved to be a prescient statement. Approximately four months later, at 1:30 in the morning, plaintiff received a text from the wife, stating that plaintiff was not "welcome  any longer" at the office, that plaintiff should "NOT ever step foot in [the office] again," and that plaintiff should "stay the [expletive] away from [the wife's] husband." A few hours later, at around 8:30 am, plaintiff received a text from the husband notifying her that she was "fired and no longer welcome in [the] office," and that if she called or tried to come back, defendants would call the police. 

Plaintiff sued for gender discrimination and defamation. Defendants moved to dismiss. The trial court dismissed the discrimination claim but refused to dismiss the defamation claim. Both sides appealed. On appeal, the Appellate Division affirmed the trial court's decision on the defamation claim, but reversed its decision on the gender discrimination claim.

In reversing the discrimination claim, the Appellate Division held:

It is well established that adverse employment actions motivated by sexual attraction are gender-based and, therefore, constitute unlawful gender discrimination. Here, while plaintiff does not allege that she was ever subjected to sexual harassment at WSCW, she alleges facts from which it can be inferred that Nicolai was motivated to discharge her by his desire to appease his wife's unjustified jealousy, and that Adams was motivated to discharge plaintiff by that same jealousy. Thus, each defendant's motivation to terminate plaintiff's employment was sexual in nature.

Because it was a motion to dismiss, the court was required to assume that the allegations in the complaint were true. Assuming they were, then plaintiff "always behaved appropriately in interacting with [the husband], and was fired for no reason other than [the wife's] belief that [the husband] was sexually attracted to plaintiff." This is sufficient to allege a claim for gender discrimination under New York law. While it might not generally be unlawful to terminate an at-will employee at the "urging of the employer's spouse," it becomes unlawful when the spouse urges the employer to terminate the employee for "unlawful, gender-related reasons." In other words, what made the firing in Edwards potentially unlawful was not that the wife urged the husband to fire plaintiff, "but the reason she urged him to do it and the reason he complied."

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