The story in Collins v. Koch Foods, Inc. begins with an office romance. A female HR manager began privately dating the plant manager in 2014. Because neither was a subordinate of the other, their relationship did not violate the original iteration of the company’s anti-fraternization policy. In 2016, the HR manager’s supervisor resigned for – wait for it – having an office romance with a subordinate! The female HR manager applied for the vacated position, at which time the HR manager and plant manager admitted to their relationship. The HR manager was ultimately passed over for the promotion (not by her boyfriend plant manager) and transferred to a different facility so that she and her paramour would not be working together.
While the lovebirds were working at separate facilities, the company revised its anti-fraternization policy. In part, the revised policy prohibited HR staff from having relationships with anyone at the same facility, regardless of whether the HR representative had supervisory authority over the other employee. During this time, the HR manager applied for another promotion, but was not interviewed or considered for the promotion because of the relationship.
In July 2017, the plant manager received a promotion and began overseeing two plants. As luck would have it, one of the plants for which he was responsible was the same plant his now-fiancee worked. Two weeks after the promotion, the plant manager and the HR manager were married.
To “congratulate” the newlyweds on their nuptials, the company … fired the female HR manager 10 days after the wedding for violating the revised anti-fraternization policy! (And you thought that melon-baller and pizza stone you received were unwanted wedding gifts!!!) But the story gets more interesting: the company not only did not terminate the male plant manager for violating the same policy, it gave him a raise!
Unsurprisingly, the terminated HR manager sued her former employer for sex discrimination, among other claims, relating to its failure to promote her and her subsequent termination. Perhaps equally unsurprisingly, the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Alabama denied the company’s motion for summary judgment (i.e. request to throw out the claims) on the female employee’s sex discrimination claims. The court found sufficient evidence to support a reasonable inference that sex was a motivating factor in the company’s decision not to promote the HR manager. Specifically, the court found factual disputes regarding whether the company treated similarly situated employees outside her protected class more favorably, and whether the HR manager was qualified for the second promotion. In addition, the court found that the termination could have been motivated at least in part by her gender given the different treatment of her husband who violated the same policy, and a former male supervisor who was permitted to resign following violation of the anti-fraternization policy.
As always, employers should evenhandedly apply policies to both men and woman – and, please, if you’re going to give someone a wedding gift, stick to the registry!