HR Manager Who Hid Office Romance Can’t Show Job Bias

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By Patrick Dorrian

An Old Wisconsin Sausage Co. human resources manager who complained about an inquiry into her relationship with a co-worker failed to show her firing was prompted by bias rather than performance issues cited by the company, a federal appeals court ruled ( Owens v. Old Wis. Sausage Co. , 2017 BL 307129, 7th Cir., No. 16-3875, 8/31/17 ).

The Aug. 31 decision by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit reaffirms that an employee needs to prove she had an objective, good-faith belief that she engaged in protected activity under federal anti-discrimination law. This is a predicate to establishing a claim that her employer retaliated against her for asserting her right to be free from workplace bias.

When management first asked Jamie Owens about her relationship with employee Matt Kobussen, she adamantly denied that the two were a couple and then refused to answer further questions, declaring “this is borderline sexual harassment.” That statement wasn’t enough to support Owens’ claim under Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act that the company fired her in retaliation for her complaint instead of its cited reasons, including her role in hiring her live-in boyfriend and repeated denials of the relationship, the court held.

Owens failed to show she reasonably and in good-faith believed that she was subjected to and was complaining about sexual harassment, the court said. Romantic relationships between a manager and a subordinate “pose a conflict of interest with a potential for an adverse impact on the workplace,” it said.

Owens acknowledged that several of her other subordinates complained that her relationship with Kobussen created a conflict of interest, Judge Ilana Diamond Rovner said. Owens’ deposition testimony also indicated “that she was aware of a number of male supervisors in relationships with subordinates, but that in the only situation in which the relationship was not already known to management, the supervisor was questioned by management as to that relationship once an inkling of the relationship arose,” Rovner wrote.

Inquiry Is Not Harassment

Owens also didn’t show the company’s inquiry and its decision to terminate her were the product of sex discrimination, the court added. One male manager whose situation was comparable to hers, according to Owens, had informed management of his relationship with a subordinate and another employee never supervised the woman he was dating, the court found. Also, Old Wisconsin showed it similarly questioned male managers when it believed they were in relationships like hers, the court said.

The court also affirmed summary judgment against Owens on her retaliation claims under the Fair Labor Standards Act. She alleged that she complained to management that some employees weren’t being paid for overtime they worked and that Old Wisconsin failed to correct the problem and fired her. But Owens said her predecessor had previously reported the same alleged FLSA violations and he wasn’t fired, the court found.

Moreover, “Owens repeatedly and consistently” maintained both before the district court and on appeal “that the reason for her termination was her failure to answer the questions posed to her regarding her relationship with Kobussen,” Rovner wrote. That fatally undercut her contention that there was a causal link between her FLSA allegations and her firing, she said.

Judges Diane P. Wood and Kenneth F. Ripple joined the opinion.

Heins Employment Law Practice LLC represented Owens. Rohde Dales LLP represented Old Wisconsin.

To contact the reporter on this story: Patrick Dorrian in Washington at pdorrian@bna.com

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Peggy Aulino at maulino@bna.com; Terence Hyland at thyland@bna.com; Chris Opfer at copfer@bna.com

Copyright © 2017 The Bureau of National Affairs, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

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