Plaintiff-HR Manager worked for a chicken processing plant in Alabama. During the course of her employment she met and started dating a plant manager in the company’s processing complex. At that time, she did not report to the plant manager so technically she was not violating the company’s existing anti-fraternization policy.
That policy prohibited supervisors and managers from “engaging in an intimate relationship with anyone under their direct or indirect supervision.” He was plant manager in a separate company plant. When their relationship started neither party supervised the other directly or indirectly. She disclosed this relationship to her manager, who was the company’s complex HR manager.
Coincidentally, the complex HR manager and the Plaintiff’s boss were found to be violating the same anti-fraternization policy by being in an “intimate relationship”. The company discovered this and forced the complex HR manager to leave the company. This left his position open, which the Plaintiff-HR Manager applied for. She was effectively denied this position because of her relationship with the plant manager. They were living together at the time Plaintiff sought the promotion.
In July of 2017 the plant manager was promoted and was now overseeing two plants, one of which his now fiancé, Plaintiff-HR Manager, was working. Two weeks later the two managers were married. But 10 days after that the Company fired the Plaintiff-HR Manager for violation of the new and improved anti-fraternization policy that sought to tighten up against incidences of fraternization. They did not terminate or discipline the now spouse of fired Plaintiff-HR Manager, in fact they gave him a pay raise.
Plaintiff-HR Manager sued for sex discrimination pointing to the company’s failure to promote her and employment termination.
The U.S District Court for the Northern District of Alabama rejected the company’s motion for summary judgement finding that there was sufficient evidence supporting the inference that sex was the motivating factor in the company’s decision not to promote Plaintiff-HR Manager. Further the Court also found that because they fired her and not her husband this too could be an indication of gender discrimination. Her husband was treated differently despite violating the same policy Plaintiff-HR Manager had violated and the former male complex HR manager was allowed to resign when it was discovered he had violated the anti-fraternization policy.
Though not every employer has an anti-fraternization policy, these policies are being used by some employers in the hope they can prevent fallout from failed relationships that have resulted in sexual harassment complaints and lawsuits. What employers must also keep in mind is that anti-fraternization policies must be administered equitably – not applying the policy differently between men and women. Lastly, this again shows that courts will rely heavily on employer’s policy statements. As ASE often advises its members, do not take your employee handbook for granted. Make sure it is kept up to date and regularly reviewed to ensure it states current company policy.
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Sources: Shawnetta Collins v Kock Foods, Inc. (9/23/2019) Shawe Rosenthal LLM blog as published in Lexology (10/2/2019)