The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals has ruled the male employee who alleged a female coworker received favorable treatment from a male supervisor and romantic partner was not the victim of sexual discrimination.
In this case, the plaintiff was an employee for a lab based in Texas. While there, the employee worked alongside a female employee who was engaged in a romantic relationship with their mutual supervisor.
The lab later moved to Arizona, but the plaintiff remained in Texas due to legal issues and instead worked remotely. Three years after, the plaintiff received a negative performance review, and the supervisor suggested the plaintiff either move to Arizona or face dismissal.
The plaintiff was later terminated as a result of poor performance and a reduction in funding for the lab. The plaintiff challenged the termination, alleging that it was the result of unfair practices and nepotism, but the company funding the lab investigated and declined to interfere.
The plaintiff then filed a sex discrimination charge and then a lawsuit against the employer alleging that the female coworker was favored and shielded as a result when the loss of funding required making cuts. This resulted in the termination of the plaintiff. The plaintiff also alleged retaliation for protesting this favoritism as well.
Initially, the district court granted the employer’s motion for summary judgment, ruling that the plaintiff’s complaints were not the result of sex but the supervisor’s personal preference for the female employee. The court addressed that the “paramour preference” theory interpreted under Title VII had not been recognized by the Ninth Circuit and had been rejected by nearly every other circuit as well as the EEOC.
The plaintiff appealed this decision; however, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed the District Court’s ruling. The Ninth Circuit pointed out that the plaintiff had never alleged an animus against male employees in the workplace, only favoritism provoked by the supervisor’s paramour preference.
The court addressed that the usage of “sex” in this circumstance would be contrary to the Title VII usage, which places it as a characteristic, not an activity. This places it as membership in a class, and the court proposed the test created in a previous decision that should, in the plaintiff’s circumstance, sex be reversed would the employer’s choice be any different. This was not the case, and as such, no sexual discrimination occurred, and the District Court’s ruling was affirmed.
This ruling is a fortunate one for employers, as workplace romances are commonplace. Employers should still practice caution as these relationships can sour and result in harassment allegations or accusations of quid pro quo. It is wise as well to educate supervisors on avoiding unwelcome romantic advances and the associated liability.