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Hold On, I’ll Have to Check with My Husband

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Can you be fired if your spouse works with one of your competitors?  The jury is still out.  Literally.

In Minnesota Court of Appeals case of April Aase v. Wapiti Meadows Community Technologies & Services, Inc., et al., the court ruled that a jury must decide whether April Aase’s (“Aase”) employer’s apparent legitimate, non-discriminatory reason for terminating her was simply a pretext for discrimination.

Aase worked for Wapiti Meadows Community Technologies & Services, Inc. (“CTS”) as a mental health practitioner from 2009 until she was terminated on May 4, 2011, when her husband became a board member for Workforce Development, Inc. (“WDI”), a competitor of CTS’s.  When CTS learned of this, it became concerned that it would violate its conflict-of-interest policy.  Aase told her boss that her husband Mark’s position would be “advisory” and provided her boss with a copy of WDI’s mission statement.  CTS sought to obtain more information about Mark’s position, but Aase did not cooperate.  On May 3, 2011, Aase’s boss met with her for about 20 minutes, and stated:  “Mark resigns from the position, or you’re fired tomorrow morning.”

CTS terminated Aase the next day stating in a letter to her that:  “due to a conflict of interest because of [her] husband serving on the board of [CTS’s] primary competitor.”  Thereafter, Aase brought a lawsuit against CTS alleging the CTS terminated her based upon her marital status in violation of the Minnesota Human Rights Act (“MHRA”).  The MHRA defines “marital status” to include:  “protection against discrimination on the basis of identity, situation, actions or beliefs of a spouse or former spouse.”

The three-prong test for bringing a successful claim for discrimination based upon marital status is:  (1) establish a prima facie case of discrimination; (2) the burden shifts to the employer to prove that a non-discriminatory rationale for the adverse action employment decision exists; and (3) the burden then shifts back to the plaintiff to demonstrate that the non-discriminatory rationale was merely a pretext for discrimination.

The lower court ruled that the first prong was satisfied, and neither party properly appealed that determination.  CTS’s articulated reason for Aase’s termination was that she violated CTS’s conflict-of-interest policy by refusing to provide information regarding her husband’s position on the WDI board.

Because CTS’s termination letter to Aase does not mention her refusal to cooperate as the reason for her termination, and because Aase’s boss previously told her that she would be fired if her husband took the board position with WDI, the court of appeals determined there was a triable issue of fact as to whether CTS’s non-discriminatory reason was merely a pretext for discrimination.

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