First Department Affirms Broad Definition of Marital Status Discrimination

Last September, we discussed a ruling by a Manhattan Supreme Court judge allowing a unique marital status discrimination lawsuit to proceed to trial. Under the New York City Human Right Law (NYCHRL), an employer may not discriminate against an employee based on whether they are married, single, divorced, or in any other particular type of personal relationship. In this particular case, Morse v. Fidessa Corporation, the question is slightly different: Does the NYCHRL cover discrimination “on the basis of the identity of a person's spouse.” A New York appeals court recently reviewed the trial court's decision and reached the same answer: Yes, it does.

NYCHRL Meant to Ensure Marital Status Plays “No Role” in Employment Decisions

To briefly recap the underlying facts of the case. The plaintiff worked for the defendants, a financial services company, and associated persons. According to the plaintiff's lawsuit, the defendants terminated his employment after another employee–his ex-wife–left the company for a competing firm. The defendant apparently believed the plaintiff and his ex-wife were still married–they were still living together with their children–and allegedly demanded he gets a divorce in order to get his job back. The defendant said this constituted discrimination under the NYCHRL, in part because a similarly situated couple was not treated the same way. That is, there was another unmarried couple that worked for the defendant, but one partner was not fired when the other partner left for a competing company.

As we previously explained, Manhattan Supreme Court denied the defendants to dismiss the case on the grounds the NYCHRL “did not extend to employment decisions based on the identity of the employee's partner or spouse.” In a judgment issued on September 6, 2018, the Appellate Division, First Department, affirmed the Supreme Court's ruling. A five-judge panel unanimously agreed the NYCHRL must be interpreted broadly to cover scenarios like the one presented by the plaintiff here.

The First Department noted that based on the legislative history of the NYCHRL, the New York City Council intended for the courts to “play a highly active role” in developing the law “by interpreting all cases in a manner consistent with the goal of providing unparalleled strength in deterring and remedying discrimination.” Put another way, the NYCHRL must be “construed broadly in favor of discrimination plaintiffs,” even more so than New York State or federal employment discrimination laws.

With respect to the definition of “marital status,” the First Department said the term can refer to “the marital status of two people in relation to each other.” The NYCHRL is designed to ensure that marital status considerations “play no role” in employment decisions. That includes scenarios, like the one alleged here, where a person is fired based on the actions of their actual or perceived spouse.

Get Advice from a NYC Marital Status Discrimination Lawyer Today

The First Department's ruling sends a clear message to all New York City employers: Do not retaliate against employees based on the actions of their significant other. If you have faced marital status discrimination in the workplace and need advice from an experienced New York City employment attorney, contact the Law Offices of Nisar Law Group, P.C., today.