A New York appeals court recently ruled in Edwards v. Nicolai (153 A.D.3d 440 (N.Y. App. Div. 1st Dep’t 2017)) that an employment termination motivated by the sexual jealousy of an employer’s spouse may support a claim for gender discrimination under the New York State Human Rights Law (“NYSHRL”) and the New York City Human Rights Law (“NYCHRL”).
Defendants Charles Nicolai and his wife Stephanie Adams – a former Playboy model – were co-owners of a chiropractic center located in New York City. In 2011, Nicolai hired plaintiff Dilek Edwards, a female yoga and massage therapist, and was her direct supervisor. Edwards’s complaint alleged that during the course of her employment, her relationship with Nicolai was “purely professional” and that Nicolai “regularly praised [her] work performance.”
However, in June 2013, Nicolai purportedly told Edwards “that his wife might become jealous of [her], because [Edwards] was too cute.” Several months later, Adams sent plaintiff a text message saying, “You are 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.” A few hours later, Edwards allegedly received an email from Nicolai stating, “You are fired and no longer welcome in our office. If you call or try to come back, we will call the police.” One day later, Adams filed an allegedly false complaint with the New York City Police Department claiming that Edwards placed “threatening” phone calls to Adams which caused Adams to change the locks at her home and business. Edwards’s complaint alleges that she has “no idea what sparked . . . Adams’ [sic] suspicions.”
Edwards’s NYSHRL and NYCHRL gender discrimination claims were dismissed at the trial court level. However, that decision was overturned on appeal, with the court holding that “adverse employment actions motivated by sexual attraction are gender-based, and therefore, constitute unlawful gender discrimination.” The court explained that while Edwards does not allege that she was subjected to sexual harassment, it can be inferred that Nicolai was motivated to terminate Edwards “by his desire to appease his wife’s unjustified jealousy.” Further, it can also be inferred that Adams was motivated to terminate Edwards based on Adams’s own jealousy. Accordingly, the court found it plausible that each defendant’s motivation to terminate Adams was sexual in nature and therefore unlawful.
In reaching its decision the court observed that, “while it is not necessarily unlawful for an employer to terminate an at-will employee at the urging of the employer’s spouse,” a plaintiff may find relief for such a discharge if the spouse requested the termination for unlawful, gender-related reasons. Here, assuming Edwards’s allegations are true, her termination was unlawful not because Adams asked Nicolai to fire Edwards, but because she did so for no other reason than her belief that Nicolai was sexually attracted to Edwards.