Employers (hopefully) know that you can’t fire someone based on a legally protected personal characteristic, like race, sex, religion, age or disability (among many other things). But apparently, being “too cute” is not one of them!
In this case, Edwards v. Nicolai, a yoga instructor, Dilek Edwards, worked at a chiropractic and wellness clinic owned by Charles Nicolai and his wife, Stephanie Adams. (Ms. Adams, by the way, is the first openly lesbian Playboy Playmate (Miss November 1992), as reported by the U.K.’s Daily Mail. Isn’t that intriguing?) According to Ms. Edwards, her relationship with Dr. Nicolai was strictly professional. At one point, however, he told Ms. Edwards that his wife might become jealous of her because she was “too cute.” Ms. Edwards only met Ms. Adams once, at the office, and the meeting was cordial.
One night, however, Ms. Edwards received a text message from Ms. Adams, stating: “You are NOT welcome any longer at Wall Street Chiropractic, DO NOT ever step foot in there again, and stay the F*** away from my husband and family!!!!!!! And remember I warned you.” Then the following morning, Ms. Edwards received an email from Dr. Nicolai that stated, “You are fired and no longer welcome in our office. If you call or try to come back, we will call the police.”
Ms. Edwards then sued Dr. Nicolai and Ms. Adams, alleging gender(i.e. sex) discrimination under state and city anti-discrimination laws. The basis of her claims were, essentially, that Ms. Adams was jealous of her for being “too cute” and that she was being discriminated against because of her appearance. (New York City law defines “gender” as including “a person’s gender identity, self-image, appearance, behavior or expression…”) The defendants asked the court to dismiss these claims as legally deficient. And the court did, even though it described the defendants’ behavior as “abhorrent.”
First, the court found that spousal jealousy is not the same as sex or gender discrimination, and it is not prohibited by law. Ms. Edwards did not claim that she was being treated differently than male employees, or that she was terminated because of her status as a woman. (In other words, it’s not okay to fire someone for being a woman, but it may be okay to fire her for being that – other – woman.) Second, as for her claim about appearance discrimination, the court found that she failed to explain how being “too cute” was gender related. The court also noted that, at least under New York law, appearance in this context has only been interpreted to involve matters of gender identity. (The court did allow a defamation claim, based on Ms. Adams’ report to the police that Ms. Edwards had made threatening phone calls to her, causing Ms. Adams to change the locks at her home and the office, to proceed).
But I particularly enjoyed Ms. Adams’ non-legal defense to the claims. It wasn’t part of the court’s decision, but the Daily Mail reported that Ms. Adams “dismissed Ms. Edwards’ claims as nonsense, saying, ‘No disrespect to anyone – but I’m a centerfold.'” That’s a defense you don’t often hear – but it’s pretty hard to argue with that. (The Daily Mail also noted that Ms. Adams had previously won $1.2 million in a lawsuit against New York City because she had been unjustly arrested for allegedly threatening to shoot a cab driver with a gun. She proved she couldn’t have been carrying a gun because she was wearing skin tight clothing! Wow – another compelling defense!)
Aside from the pure entertainment value of this case, there is a practical lesson to be learned here. Although the employer was able to defeat the claims of sex discrimination, it had to undergo the expense and (international!) publicity of defending against them. This can be attributed, at least in part, to the manner of Ms. Edwards’ termination. It would be wise for employers to handle terminations in a thoughtful and professional way. Don’t fire employees by text or email! Don’t use profanity during the process! Don’t threaten to – or actually – call the police (unless of course, it is, in fact, warranted)!