A New York Appellate decision issued last week—finding that firing an employee for being sexually attractive states a claim for gender discrimination—exemplifies the broad interpretation of discrimination laws in recent years.
Plaintiff Dilek Edwards worked as a yoga instructor and massage therapist for a Manhattan-based chiropractor and wellness center owned and operated by a married couple. Edwards maintains that she was regularly praised for her performance and maintained a “purely professional” relationship with the husband-owner.
According to Edwards, it all went downhill when the husband-owner warned her of his wife’s jealously because Edwards was “too cute.” A few months later, the wife-owner abruptly fired Edwards, warning her in a post-midnight text message to “stay … away from my husband and family!!!!!!!” Edward denies any romantic relationship with the husband-owner, maintaining that she has “no idea” what sparked the wife’s outrage.
Edwards sued for gender discrimination in violation of the New York State Human Rights Law (NYSHRL) and the New York City Human Rights Laws (NYCHRL). The trial court dismissed the claims on the ground that “spousal jealousy alone” does not constitute gender discrimination.
The New York Appellate Division, First Department reversed, holding that Edwards adequately stated a claim for gender discrimination. The Court held that, assuming the allegations of the complaint are true, the defendants’ “motivation to terminate plaintiff’s employment was sexual in nature.” Accordingly, firing Edwards on the belief that the husband was “sexually attracted to plaintiff” adequately states a claim for gender discrimination.
Edwards also brought an appearance-related gender discrimination claim, the dismissal of which was affirmed on appeal. While Court did not elaborate on its reasoning—aside from stating that Edwards “failed to state a cause of action”—the trial court previously held that this claim was insufficiently pled given that “the term ‘too cute’ may not be a remark about physical appearance in the first place.”
The NYSHRL and NYCHRL are known for being liberally interpreted. While it is unlikely that other courts would agree with this broad interpretation, this decision certainly opens the door for similar arguments in the future.