A New Challenge to Anti-Nepotism Rules Based on Marital Status Discrimination

LR-Business-People-StaircaseIn a newly filed lawsuit that has garnered some publicity, a Shelton high school teacher is suing the Shelton Public Schools over the imposition of an anti-nepotism rule which she claims constitutes marital status discrimination. The rule required her to be transferred to another school after she married a fellow teacher in the high school. The rule prohibited certain relatives, including spouses, from working in the same school or department.

The Connecticut Fair Employment Practices Act (Conn. Gen. Stat. § 46a-60) lists fifteen different bases for a claim of discrimination in employment; one of which is marital status. Many employers have anti-nepotism rules which prohibit relatives, including spouses, from certain employment categories, such as a reporting relationship or work in the same department.

Anti-nepotism rules as applied to spouses have not been deemed to be marital status discrimination because “marital status” has been interpreted by the courts (including several Connecticut Superior Court decisions) as meaning only the status of being married as opposed to not being married. Employment decisions based on being married to a particular person have not been held to discriminate based on marital status. For example, in a case from 1996 defended by this firm, the Court rejected a claim of marital status discrimination filed by a woman who was refused employment with an ambulance company because her husband was already employed on the ambulance crew. However, the new lawsuit offers a novel alternative argument, which is that the school district’s anti-nepotism rule is marital status discrimination because it applies only to teachers who legally marry, but not to those involved in any other type of romantic relationship, such as dating, engagement, or cohabitation.

This ingenious claim depends on a presumption of the purpose of anti-nepotism rules that may not be valid. In general, anti-nepotism rules protect an employer against conflicts of interest due to an employee’s divided loyalties, and the Shelton teacher’s claim presumes that such rules are intended to prevent all such conflicts. But employers cannot be expected to police against every possible conflict of interest arising from a close relationship between employees. For example, college roommates may feel a closer bond than estranged siblings, or a couple who are married but separated and contemplating divorce might feel less loyalty to one another than a newly engaged couple. Still less can an employer inquire into the feelings of people in romantic relationships.

Instead, anti-nepotism rules rely on what the law calls a “bright-line” test; namely a test which is easy to apply rather than nuanced. Relationships like parent-child, sibling, or legal spouse are definitive, and as a general proposition of human nature could be expected to include strong feelings of loyalty.   So the purpose of anti-nepotism rules may simply be to prevent the obvious potential conflicts of interest inherent in the bright-line relationships, and any rule that tried to delve more deeply into other forms of relationships would be intrusive and unworkable.

If the theory of the plaintiff in the Shelton case proves to be correct, it would be an expansion of the law on marital status discrimination that could eliminate the category of spouse from employer anti-nepotism rules. However, the lawsuit has just commenced, and although the question of whether a claim is legally viable will likely be addressed in a preliminary motion, it is too soon at this point for employers to re-write their anti-nepotism rules.