A New York employment lawsuit alleging wrongful termination is making legal headlines. The plaintiff, a Manhattan message therapist and yoga instructor, maintains that she was fired because her boss’s spouse found her to be “too cute.”

While the trial court dismissed the claims, a New York appeals court recently held that Dilek Edwards’ claims for gender discrimination under the New York State Human Rights Law (NYSHRL) and the New York City Human Rights Law (NYCHRL) may proceed. The decision in Edwards v. Nicolai highlights that courts are increasingly construing gender discrimination claims very broadly.

Allegations of Wrongful Termination  

Defendant Charles V. Nicolai and his wife, defendant Stephanie Adams, own Wall Street Chiropractic and Wellness (WSCW). Nicolai is the head chiropractor and oversees the medical operations, while Adams is the chief operating officer. In April of 2012, Nicolai hired plaintiff, Dilek Edwards, as a yoga and massage therapist, and subsequently served as her direct supervisor.

According to Edwards’ complaint, the relationship between her and Nicolai was "purely professional" and that Nicolai "regularly praised Plaintiff's work performance throughout her period of employment." In June 2013, however, Nicolai allegedly "informed Plaintiff that his wife might become jealous of Plaintiff because Plaintiff was too cute.'" Approximately four months later, on October 29, 2013, at 1:31 a.m., Adams sent Edwards a text message stating, "You are NOT welcome any longer at Wall Street Chiropractic, DO NOT ever step foot in there again, and stay the [expletive] away from my husband and family!!!!!!! And remember I warned you."

A few hours later, Edwards allegedly received an email from Nicolai stating, "You are fired and no longer welcome in our office. If you call or try to come back, we will call the police.'" The complaint further alleges that, on October 30, 2013, Adams filed a complaint with the New York City Police Department (NYPD) alleging - falsely - that Adams had received "threatening" phone calls from plaintiff that so frightened her as to cause her to change the locks at her home and business.

Following her termination, Edwards filed an employment lawsuit alleging a cause of action for gender discrimination in violation of the NYSHRL, a cause of action for gender discrimination in violation of the NYCHRL, and a cause of action for defamation. The trial court granted the defendants’ motion to the extent of dismissing the two gender discrimination claims.

NY Appeals Court Reinstates Employment Suit

The appeals court reversed. It held that “adverse employment actions motivated by sexual attraction are gender-based, and therefore, constitute unlawful gender discrimination.” The court further explained:

While plaintiff does not allege that she was ever subjected to sexual harassment at WSCW, she alleges facts from which it can be inferred that Nicolai was motivated to discharge her by his desire to appease his wife's unjustified jealousy and that Adams was motivated to discharge plaintiff by that same jealousy. Thus, each defendant's motivation to terminate plaintiff's employment was sexual in nature.

In reaching its decision, the New York appeals court distinguished the facts of the case with prior cases involving admitted consensual sexual affairs between the employer and the employee. “In such cases, it was the employee's behavior - not merely the employer's attraction to the employee or the perception of such an attraction by the employer's spouse - that prompted the termination,” the court noted.

The court also acknowledged that it is not necessarily unlawful for an employer to terminate an at-will employee at the urging of the employer's spouse. However, it held that such a discharge is actionable if the spouse urged the discharge for unlawful, gender-related reasons. “Taking plaintiff's allegations as true, what makes her discharge unlawful is not that Nicolai's wife urged him to do it, but the reason she urged him to do it and the reason he complied,” the court explained.

If you have any questions or if you would like to discuss the matter further, please contact me, Ramon Rivera, at 201-806-3364.