Can Spousal Jealousy be Considered Sex Discrimination?


 

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In William Shakespeare’s Othello, a character once warned “O, beware, my lord, of jealousy; it is the green-eyed monster which doth mock the meat it feeds on.” As the titular character in Othello learned, jealousy is a powerful emotion that when not controlled, has led to countless people’s demise.

Jealousy knows no bounds and the workplace is certainly not immune to its effects. Things can become especially tricky when a husband and wife find themselves working for the same company. At what point, if at all, does a spouse’s behavior cross the line and move from harmless jealousy to sex discrimination under Title VII?

Jealous Wife Attempts to Prohibit Her Husband from Working with Any Females

A recent case in the Western District of Pennsylvania discussed the overlap of jealous spouses and employment discrimination. In Sztroin v. PennWestIndus. Trucks, LLC, 2017 BL 351362 (W.D. Pa. Oct 02, 2017), a female employee filed a lawsuit against a forklift dealership claiming that the male president of the company treated her differently and eventually fired her because the president’s wife didn’t want him to work with any women.

What makes this case so interesting is that the president’s wife was also on the company payroll, attended the office on a weekly basis, and participated in company meetings with other employees.

During the course of the employee’s tenure with the company, the president began to treat her differently than her male counterparts. He avoided eye contact with her, excluded her from important meetings, and at one point the vice president even informed her that she was no longer allowed to go into his office or address him directly in the workplace.

Eventually the president fired her, explaining that she was an excellent employee but that his wife didn’t approve of him working closely with any female employees. She was allowed to return to work, but she was subjected to the same treatment and eventually fired for the same reasons.

Is Spousal Jealousy a Legitimate, Nondiscriminatory Reason for Disparate Treatment and Termination?

In this case, the company attempted to argue that an employer may lawfully terminate an employee because of spousal jealousy. In an attempt to look at precedent, the court concluded that neither the Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit nor the United States Supreme Court have ever spoken directly on this issue. The few cases that have addressed spousal jealousy in the workplace, including Planter v. Cash & Thomas Contractors, Inc., 908 F.2d 902 (11th Cir. 1990), have found that spousal jealousy may be a lawful reason to fire an employee only where the spouse was jealous of one particular individual.

Spousal Jealousy Against an Entire Gender is Unlawful Discrimination

What makes this case different from the other cases that addressed spousal jealousy in the workplace is that the president’s wife didn’t just want her husband to avoid working or interacting with this particular female employee.

Instead, she attempted to prohibit him from working with any female employee at all. The court determined that jealousy in this case was not a lawful explanation for disparate treatment and termination under Title VII because she was jealous of an entire gender.

The Green-Eyed Monster of Jealousy

While most of us would like to think that we would have acted better in this situation, this case demonstrates how jealousy can get the best of someone. This case is ongoing and it will be interesting to see whether a jury considers the impact of the wife’s jealousy to be unlawful sex discrimination.

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