A LESSON IN CALIFORNIA’S WORKPLACE MARITAL DISCRIMINATION LAW « Law Offices of Timothy Bowles | Top Employment Law Firm in Los Angeles


Employee “Marital Status” is Protected; An Employee’s Rocky Marriage is Not

California is one of some 21 states prohibiting workplace discrimination against “marital status,”  defined in government regulations as an individual’s “state of marriage, non-marriage, divorce or dissolution, separation, widowhood, annulment, or other marital state.” In California, a “spouse” is a partner in marriage, regardless of gender.

While a person’s status as married or single must be irrelevant to employment decisions, the recent Court of Appeal decision in Nakai v. Friendship House Association of American Indians (August 10, 2017) confirms that suspending or firing an employee arising from his or her marriage to a particular person is not unlawful.

Friendship House, a drug and alcohol rehabilitation center, had employed Orlando Nakai for over 20 years. Helen Waukazoo, Friendship’s CEO, was also Orlando’s mother-in-law. In May, 2016, after some two years of marriage difficulties, Karen Nakai (also a Friendship employee) called her mother, asserting Orlando had a gun, was angry with Friendship workers, was dangerous, and had relapsed on drugs.

On the basis of daughter Karen’s information, Helen, the CEO, immediately suspended Orlando and later fired him. He sued Friendship House, alleging Helen terminated him “solely because of his status as the spouse of the complaining employee and [her] son-in-law.” Orlando contended his firing constituted marital status discrimination prohibited by California’s Fair Employment and Housing Act (FEHA).

The courts disagreed, denying Orlando relief. Valid marital discrimination employee claims are for terminations due to the worker’s status as “married,” “single,” “divorced,” etc., not for “the status of being married to a particular person.”  Orlando’s case failed because his employer could validly fire him out of a family dynamics problem, not a marital discrimination problem. Friendship House thus properly let Orlando go from the “entirely reasonable perspective” of thwarting a prospect of workplace violence.

Federal and state anti-discrimination laws protect employees from termination and other adverse workplace consequences based on factors unrelated to their ability and performance. Human resources executives must be able to distinguish between valid operations-based grounds for personnel decisions and those that cross the line into an employer’s unlawful conduct.

Please contact one of our lawyers, Tim Bowles, Cindy Bamforth, or Helena Kobrin, for guidance on such matters.

Tim Bowles

September 29, 2017