A man who says he was fired from a financial services company because his ex-wife took a job with another firm may proceed with a suit filed under New York City’s broad-based Human Rights Law, a Manhattan appeals court has ruled in a case of first impression.
A unanimous panel of the Appellate Division, First Department denied Fidessa Corp.’s motion to dismiss a suit filed by Christopher Morse, who says he was fired because his wife, who was also his co-worker, left Fidessa for another financial services firm.
Morse claimed his marriage was the reason for his termination and further alleged that he was told that if he divorced his wife the company would consider taking him back.
Court papers said that, at the time of Morse’s firing, Morse and his wife had been divorced but continued to live together with their two children. Morse claimed, however, that his bosses at Fidessa believed that the couple was still married.
Morse filed suit under the city’s Human Rights Law, which offers civil rights protections and prohibits job discrimination. But Fidessa moved to dismiss on the grounds that the law’s protection applies to an employee’s marital status—whether they are married, single or divorced—but does not provide protection because of the identity of the employee’s spouse.
Last year, Manhattan Supreme Court Justice Arlene Bluth rejected the company’s narrow construction of the human rights law, finding that, under Fidessa’s interpretation of the law, the company could demand that two employees marry each other and fire them if they failed to comply.
Upholding Bluth’s decision, the First Department said a narrow reading of the human rights law would allow for a “wide range of discriminatory conduct.”
Writing for the appeals court, Presiding Justice Rolando Acosta said that the law is intended to prevent decision-makers from using protected class statuses as proxies for making unrelated rules.
For example, he said, employers can limit business-related communications between employees. He noted that the record in Morse’s suit does not explain Fidessa’s concern about its employees’ marital status, but said that if marriage is being used as a proxy for creating an unrelated rule to protect company secrets, “it is not an acceptable proxy now given today’s social reality, as reflected in a variety of intimate relationships, including those of unmarried couples.”
“The broader interpretation of marital status that we adopt today, will encourage covered entities to think seriously about their substantive concerns and tailor their policies to those legitimate concerns and not implicate protected class status,” Acosta said.
Acosta was joined on the ruling by Justices Peter Tom, Jeffrey Oing and Peter Moulton.
Mark Lubelsky and Josef Mensah of Mark L. Lubelsky & Associates represented Morse.
Fox Rothschild partner Daniel Schnapp and associate Gregg Kligman appeared for the defendants.
The lawyers in the case did not immediately respond to requests for comment.