While federal law does not protect employees from discrimination based on marital status, marital status discrimination is protected under many state human rights statutes. Most states limit the protection to the status of being married. That is, it is unlawful to discriminate against an employee because the employee is married, because the employee is single, or because the employee is divorced.
A growing minority of states have extended marital status discrimination to cover employees who face adverse employment actions because of the identity of their spouse. The Minnesota Court of Appeals has recently done so. In Taylor v. LSI Corporation of America, a long-term employee married the company's president. Due to alleged poor financial performance by the company, the president was asked to resign. The company then fired the former president's wife, and she sued. The court ruled that the “clear terms” of the Minnesota Human Rights Act protected not only the status of being married but also employment decisions based on the identity or situation of the employee's spouse.
Marital status discrimination protection based on the identities or situations of spouses might arise in a number of circumstances. Not only might it arise when an employer that employs a married couple terminates one spouse and is concerned about the adverse morale impact on the employed spouse, but it can arise when an employee's spouse is not an employee. For example, an employer might believe that it is an inherent conflict of interest when a spouse is employed by a competitor. It might also arise when the spouse is unsavory (i.e., a criminal) or otherwise objectionable.
Employers also should review state marital status laws when preparing policies regulating nepotism.