A woman who was fired because she was “too cute” and made her employer’s wife jealous may proceed with her gender discrimination suit, a state appeals court in Manhattan ruled.
A panel of the Appellate Division, First Department said it disagreed with Manhattan Supreme Court Justice Shlomo Hagler’s ruling last year that New York’s employment discrimination laws, considered among the most liberal in the country, did not allow Dilek Edwards to bring a gender discrimination claim against her former employers, a husband and wife team who co-own a chiropractic practice in Manhattan’s Financial District.
The ruling in Edwards’ favor may come as a surprise to some in the employment bar, as courts across the country have generally found for defendants in cases where employees were fired because their employers found them attractive.
Edwards was hired in 2012 as a massage therapist and yoga instructor at Wall Street Chiropractic, which is co-owned by chiropractor Charles Nicolai and his wife Stephanie Adams.
More than a year after Edwards was hired, Nicolai told Edwards that his wife may become jealous of Edwards because she is “too cute,” court papers state.
About four months later, Edwards received a text message from Adams stating that she is “NOT welcome any longer at Wall Street Chiropractic.”
“DO NOT ever step foot in there again, and stay the [expletive] away from my husband and family!!!!!!! And remember I warned you,” Adams’ text message stated.
A few hours after she received the text, Edwards says, she received an email from Nicolai stating that Edwards had been terminated and that the police would be called if she tried to set foot in the office.
For her part, Edwards says her relationship with Nicolai was “purely professional” and alleges that Adams filed a false report with the New York City Police Department that Edwards was making threatening calls to Adams.
Edwards sued the couple, alleging gender discrimination under both the New York State and New York City human rights laws. She also argued that, under the city’s human rights law, she is entitled to a claim of “appearance-based” discrimination.
Last year, Hagler granted the defendants’ motion to dismiss, finding that Edwards’ claim that she was fired because she’s “too cute” isn’t strong enough to support her gender discrimination claim, as there was no indication that she was fired just because she is a woman.
The defendants’ conduct, “no matter how abhorrent,” Hagler said, does not constitute gender discrimination.
But in a unanimous, unsigned decision reversing Hagler’s ruling, Justices David Friedman, Karla Moskowitz, Judith Gische and Marcy Kahn found that it is “well established” that employment actions based on sexual attraction are gender-based and thus amount to gender discrimination.
While Edwards did not allege that she was the victim of sexual harassment, the court explained, it can be inferred that Nicolai fired Edwards because of his “desire to appease wife’s unjustified jealousy.”
“Thus, each defendant’s motivation to terminate plaintiff’s employment was sexual in nature,” the panel found. The panel did agree with Hagler, however, that Edwards failed to state a cause of action under her theory of appearance-based discrimination.
Edwards’ attorney, Joseph & Kirschenbaum partner D. Maimon Kirschenbaum, said in an interview that he was “dancing in the halls” over the appellate court’s ruling.
He said that courts around the country tend to be “extremely protective of men” in situations like the one faced by Nicolai, noting that Hagler relied on decisions in federal and state courts in Georgia and Iowa in which women who were fired after their employers’ spouses were concerned about the relationship between the employer and the employee could not bring gender discrimination claims.
“I haven’t found a court in the country to rule this way,” Kirschenbaum said.
Edwards also had the backing of New York City’s Commission on Human Rights, which filed an amicus brief in the case arguing that employment decisions based on “sexual desire or perceived sexual attractiveness” amount to prima facie gender discrimination.
Martin Siegel, a partner at Golenbock Eiseman Assor Bell & Peskoe, represented the defendants. He could not be immediately reached for comment.