Court: Minnesota’s Human Rights Act prevents firing spouse

Attention, Minnesota employers: You can’t fire an employee because his/her spouse takes a job with your competition.

The Minnesota Court of Appeals today ruled a Mower County social services company violated the state’s Human Rights Act, when it fired a woman because her husband joined an advisory board of another company with whom the Austin-based nonprofit competes for federal funds.

April Aase worked for Wapiti Meadows Community Technology and Services, which provides mental-health and employment counseling for low-income clients. So does another provider, Workforce Development, Inc. Relations between the two companies are “strained,” according to testimony in the case.

When Aase’s husband agreed to join the board of directors of the competition, the executive director of her company — himself a former employee of the competition — told her, “Mark resigns from the position, or you’re fired tomorrow morning.”

He didn’t and she was fired the next day for having a conflict of interest.

A Mower County district court judge ruled the company “had articulated a legitimate, nondiscriminatory reason for termination,” but today the Minnesota Court of Appeals reversed the ruling.

Here’s the key provision of the state’s Human Rights Act:

Except when based on a bona fide occupational qualification, it is an unfair employment practice for an employer, because of race, color, creed, religion, national origin, sex, marital status, status with regard to public assistance, membership or activity in a local commission, disability, sexual orientation, or age to:

(1) refuse to hire or to maintain a system of employment which unreasonably excludes a person seeking employment; or

(2) discharge an employee; or

(3) discriminate against a person with respect to hiring, tenure, compensation, terms, upgrading, conditions, facilities, or privileges of employment.

The court said that Ms. Aase’s refusal to provide information about her husband’s job with the competition was a legitimate reason for her firing, but Judge Jill Flaskamp Halbrooks wrote in her opinion that since the termination letter didn’t mention a refusal to cooperate, Aase’s marital status was the true reason for her firing, sending the case back to the district court.

Here’s the full opinion.