June 13, 2013

Marital status protection trumps conflict policy, says MN Court of Appeals

Posted in Discrimination, Legitimate Business Reason for Termination or other Adverse Action, Marital Status tagged , , , , , , , , at 9:52 am by Tom Jacobson

Wedding Casual

Newlyweds, Camden State Park (August 6, 1988)

Twenty-five years ago this summer, my wife and I were married in the most beautiful outdoor ceremony at Camden State Park.  We had both worked there for several summers — she in the park office and I on the beach. We’ve never worked for the same employer since, though I’m sure we’d make a great team if we did. And, if things didn’t work out with our mutual employer such that one of us wanted to quit and go to work for a competitor, the Minnesota Court of Appeals has granted some protection to the one who stays.

The protection was granted in the case of Aase v. Wapiti Meadows Community Technologies and Services, Inc., which involved a situation where a husband and wife (April and Mark Aase) both worked for Wapiti Meadows, d/b/a Community Technologies and Services (CTS). Mr. Aase resigned and accepted a position with a competitor of CTS. CTS then fired Mrs. Aase and claimed that it did so because Mrs. Aase failed to cooperate with the company’s efforts to mitigate the potential conflict of interest. However, other evidence suggested that CTS fired Mrs. Aase because of her husband’s work for the competitor.

Mrs. Aase sued, claiming her termination violated the marital status discrimination provisions of the Minnesota Human Rights Act (MHRA), which makes it an unfair employment practice for an employer to discharge an employee because of marital status. This includes protection against discrimination on the basis of identity, situation, actions, or beliefs of a spouse or former spouse. The trial court dismissed the case based in part on its conclusion that it was legitimate and non-discriminatory for the company to fire Mrs. Aase because she would violate the company’s conflict of interest policy if her husband worked for the competitor.

Mrs. Aase appealed that decision to the Court of Appeals, which then had to decide whether the conflict of interest was a legitimate reason for firing Mrs. Aase. The court said no, “It was not a legitimate, nondiscriminatory act for CTS to discharge Aase solely based on the actions of her husband, even if CTS believed those actions violated the conflict-of-interest policy.” The appellate court then remanded the case for a trial where the trial court will need to decide whether CTS fired Mrs. Aase due to the conflict of interest involving her husband or for some other legitimate non-discriminatory reason.

What you need to know: Minnesota law prohibits employers from discriminating against employees due to their marital status. This includes the identity, situation, actions and beliefs of a spouse. Employers may, however discharge employees for legitimate non-discriminatory reasons. Based on the Wapiti Meadows case, the conflict that may exist when an employee’s spouse works for a competitor is not a legitimate non-discriminatory reason for discharging an employee.

For more information about this article, please contact me at alexandriamnlaw.com or  taj@alexandriamnlaw.com.

The comments posted in this blog are for general informational purposes only. They are not to be considered as legal advice, and they do not establish an attorney-client relationship. For legal advice regarding your specific situation, please consult your attorney.

Copyright 2013 Swenson Lervick Syverson Trosvig Jacobson Schultz, PA

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