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Executive Summary: Your friends may refuse to hang out with you because of your spouse, but in Minnesota, your employer generally cannot. On May 20, 2013, the Minnesota Court of Appeals issued the first Minnesota appellate decision addressing marital discrimination under the Minnesota Human Rights Act (MHRA) since 2011, Aase v. Wapiti Meadows Community Techs. & Servs., Inc.
Although certainly not a novel decision in terms of legal analysis, the case provides another reminder that Minnesota protects employees based not only on protected categories such as race, age, sex, etc. but also based on marital status, including whether the employee is married, divorced, single, remarried, separated, or widowed, and the employee's spouse's identity, situation, actions or beliefs. In Aase, the employer terminated the plaintiff-employee's position as a mental-health practitioner shortly after learning that her husband was considering an advisory position on the board of directors of the employer's sole local competitor. Ms. Aase filed suit, alleging that her termination violated the MHRA, which provides "that it is an 'unfair employment practice for an employer, because of . . . marital status . . . [to] discharge an employee' unless the discharge is based on a bona fide occupational qualification.'"
The trial court granted the employer's summary judgment motion, ruling that the employer had terminated Ms. Aase for a legitimate, non-discriminatory reason: if her husband accepted the new position, it would have violated the company's conflict of interest policy. The Court of Appeals reversed the dismissal, however, and remanded the case back to the trial court. The appeals court ruled that the evidence could support an inference that Ms. Aase's marital status, i.e., her husband's conduct, was the real reason for termination. That holding was bolstered by evidence that the employer's executive director had threatened to terminate Ms. Aase if her husband "joined the board" of the competitor.
Employers' Bottom Line:
The Aase case provides a reminder to Minnesota employers that the state generally prohibits an employer from taking adverse action against an employee not only based on whether the employee is married or unmarried, but based on the identity or conduct of the employee's spouse. Although it seems intuitive that employers would not want their employees "sleeping with the enemy," if the employee is legally married and there is no applicable bona fide occupational exception, the employer cannot take adverse employment action based on such protected activity (i.e., marriage) alone.
If you have any questions regarding this Alert or other labor or employment related issues, please contact the author, Adam Klarfeld, firstname.lastname@example.org, who is an attorney in our Minneapolis office, or the FordHarrison attorney with whom you usually work.
Topics: Hiring & Firing, Marriage, Protected Class
Civil Rights Updates, Labor & Employment Law Updates