When the New York City Council amended the New York City Human Rights Law (“CHRL”) in 2005, it signaled that the law should be construed liberally and independently of similar federal and state provisions. The City Council’s adoption of Local Law No. 35 in 2016 furthered these goals by providing “additional guidance for the development of an independent body of jurisprudence for the City Human Rights Law that is maximally protective of civil rights in all circumstances.” On September 6, 2018, the Appellate Division of the Supreme Court of New York, First Department, in Morse v. Fidessa Corp., 2018 NY Slip Op 07208, followed the guidance provided by the City Council, broadly interpreting the CHRL to prohibit employment discrimination based upon the identity of an employee’s spouse, not merely on the fact that the employee is married.

Facts and Procedural History

In Morse, plaintiff alleged that the defendant, Fidessa Corporation, suspended and subsequently fired him because a co-worker, whom Fidessa believed to be his wife, left Fidessa to take a job with a competitor. Plaintiff filed suit in New York Supreme Court alleging marital status discrimination in violation of the CHRL. In response to Plaintiff’s complaint, Fidessa filed a motion to dismiss, arguing that the CHRL’s protection against marital status discrimination was limited to discrimination based upon whether an employee was married or not. Fidessa argued that this protection did not extend to employment decisions based on the identity, or perceived identity, of an employee’s spouse.

In support of its motion to dismiss, Fidessa relied upon the Second Department’s holding in Levin v. Yeshiva Univ., 96 N.Y.2d 484 (2001), in which that court stated that “a distinction must be made between the complainant’s marital status as such, and the existence of the complainant’s disqualifying relationship … with another person.” Fidessa also relied upon the Second Department’s holding in Matter of Manhattan Pizza Hut v. New York State Human Rights Appeal Bd., 51 N.Y.2d 506 (1980), in which that court held that “the plain and ordinary meaning of “marital status” is the social condition enjoyed by an individual by reason of his … having participated … in a marriage.”

On August 8, 2017, the New York Supreme Court, New York County, denied Defendant’s motion to dismiss. Fidessa appealed the decision to the Appellate Division, First Department.

The First Department’s Decision

In upholding the lower court’s decision and allowing the claim to proceed, the First Department noted that both Levin and Manhattan Pizza Hut were decided prior to the passage of the Restoration Act in 2005 and Local Law No. 35 in 2016. These laws codified the City Council’s intent that the CHRL be liberally construed, to provide maximum protection for civil rights and “ensure that there was no tolerance for discrimination in public life.” The Court held that Local Law No. 35 made it clear that “areas of law that have been settled by virtue of interpretations of federal or state law will now be reopened for argument and analysis.”

The Court determined that the Second Department, in deciding Levin, had failed to engage in liberal construction analysis now required under the CHRL and that adopting the narrow definition of “marital status” set forth in Levin and Manhattan Pizza Hut would permit a wide range of discriminatory conduct to continue unabated. As such, the Court determined that the Second Department’s interpretation of “marital status” in Levin and Manhattan Pizza Hut could not be sustained.

Engaging in the liberal construction analysis required under the CHRL, the Court ultimately adopted the interpretation that “marital status” includes the marital status of two people vis-à-vis one another, not merely the existence of being married. As a result, the First Department determined that an employee has a colorable claim of marital status discrimination where his or her employer takes adverse action based on the identity of his or her spouse.

What Does This Decision Mean to You?

The situation presented by this case is not an entirely uncommon event. Some employers, when an employee voluntarily departs to work for a competitor, or when terminating an employee for misconduct, harbor concerns that the remaining spouse-employee, for example, could feed confidential information to the former employee, surreptitiously participated in the misconduct (or at least was aware of it but did not report), or simply cannot be trusted because their allegiance is perceived to lie with their spouse. This decision makes clear that such actions can no longer be taken with impunity or just based on a feeling. Rather, if an employer wants to fire such an employee, they had better have solid information that shows the remaining employee violated his or her duty of loyalty or otherwise breached an obligation to the company.

It remains to be seen whether the City Council will respond to the Court’s decision in Morse by passing legislation specifically defining the term “marital status” as it pertains to the CHRL – either to correct the First Department’s interpretation or, more likely, to codify it. In the meantime, employers should review their policies and should act with caution when considering adverse employment actions that may be perceived by the employee to be motivated by the identity of his or her spouse.