Employment Law Daily Spousal jealousy defense, alleged to include all females, can’t stop claims of fired female manager
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Thursday, October 5, 2017

Spousal jealousy defense, alleged to include all females, can’t stop claims of fired female manager

By Joy P. Waltemath, J.D.

Unconvinced by a trucking company’s assertion of spousal jealousy as a lawful reason to fire its female service operations manager, a federal district court in Pennsylvania noted that spousal jealousy is deemed to be a lawful reason to terminate an employee only where the spouse was jealous of a particular individual, not—as alleged here–when the spouse was jealous of an entire gender. As such, the court refused to dismiss the disparate treatment and hostile work environment claims of the fired manager, who contended that during her tenure, her boss would not speak to her or allow her in his office, excluded her from meetings, directed her to communicate with him through subordinates (and not even email him directly), and eventually fired her twice because his wife did not want him to work with female employees (Sztroin v. PennWest Industrial Truck, LLC, October 2, 2017, Fischer, N.).

Don’t talk to your boss. The Service Operations Manager at PennWest for about four and one/half years reported to the president. His wife was also on PennWest’s payroll, came into the office weekly, and participated in meetings with PennWest employees, customers, and vendors. It wasn’t long after she was hired that the president began treating the manager differently than her male colleagues, the manager alleged in her complaint: He avoided eye contact and excluded her from meetings, which directly involved her job and her subordinates. He directed her subordinates to relay important information to her; the VP told her she was no longer allowed to go into the president’s office or to address him directly in the workplace—that all communication should go through him, although no other employee at her level was so instructed, and her own male subordinates could speak to the president directly.

“You didn’t see me.” After the manager was later told to not even email the president, he came into her office to ask her to do an assignment because, she claimed, he said “he knew he could count on her to get the job done,” but when he left, he allegedly said, “I was never here. You didn’t see me.” She was invited and then disinvited to a meeting with a major client, along with the VP and president. Finally, she was fired by the president, who allegedly told her she was an excellent employee, but his wife did not approve of him working closely with female employees, and that was why she was being terminated, a rationale that the VP also reiterated. Within weeks, however, the manager was told she was no longer fired and returned to work. In fact, the president’s wife allegedly apologized for the way the manager had been treated.

Fired again. But the cordial atmosphere did not last. The president again began avoiding eye contact and excluding her from meetings. She had little contact with her boss for an entire year, eventually hearing from another employee that the president’s wife said she wanted the manager fired. As a result, the manager sought professional treatment for anxiety for the stress she was experiencing. Eventually, the VP fired the manager over the phone and told her that she was being terminated because she was a woman and the president’s wife did not want him to work closely with women; the complaint alleged that the VP specifically said the wife was upset that the manager had been included on an email that was sent to the president regarding the progress of a recently hired employee. The manager then was replaced by a male employee.

Spousal jealousy. In the manager’s resulting Title VII and Pennsylvania Human Relations Act claims, the employer sought to dismiss the complaint because, it claimed, an employer may lawfully terminate an employee due to spousal jealousy. Neither the Third Circuit nor the U.S. Supreme Court have spoken directly on this issue., noted the court, but it pointed out courts that have found spousal jealousy to be a lawful reason for firing have done so “only where the spouse was jealous of a particular individual, not where the spouse was jealous of an entire sex.” Reasoning that jealousy is not a lawful explanation if a spouse was not jealous of a particular plaintiff but rather jealous of an entire gender, the court examined the manager’s claim in detail.

Disparate treatment. In her complaint, she alleged that she is a woman who was qualified for her position as the Service Operations Manager; she was treated differently by the president and his wife because she is a woman, specifically fired because she is a woman; and she was replaced by a male coworker because the president’s did not want him to work closely with any women, not to look or talk to other women, period. These allegations raised a reasonable expectation that discovery will reveal evidence that the manager’s protected status played either a motivating or determining factor in PennWest’s decision to terminate her, concluded the court, finding she had sufficient pleaded a disparate treatment claim.

Hostile work environment. Because the manager’s complaint claimed that she was told by her superiors that she was being treated differently from her male counterparts because of her gender, she had sufficiently alleged she was subject to intentional gender discrimination. Her allegations included that she was ignored by her supervisor in different ways for years, she was excluded from meetings and was even terminated once before being rehired, all of which were because of her gender. These alleged facts sufficiently met the severe and pervasive element of her claim, especially at the motion to dismiss stage. Plus, she alleged that she sought medical treatment for anxiety and the court found a reasonable person might have done so. Finally, because the president was her supervisor, she sufficiently pleaded employer liability, all of which led to the court finding she had stated a plausible hostile work environment claim.

However, given that the manager had alleged a straightforward case of intentional discrimination, her disparate impact claim failed, as did her Title VII claim against the president individually. The PHRA allows recovery only where a plaintiff establishes a defendant “aided and abetted” the discriminatory conduct. Here, the manager alleged that her boss was the President of PennWest and that he was personally responsible for her termination; the facts pleaded in her disparate treatment and hostile work environment claims “amply” supported her PHRA claim against the president in his individual capacity for aiding and abetting.

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