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Courts split over 'marital status'?

As noted in Barbara Jones’ earlier post, this week I took a closer look (password required) at a Court of Appeals’ decision that came down in a marital status discrimination case. 

In Taylor v. LSI Corporation of America, the court allowed a woman who claimed she was terminated because her husband had left the company to pursue a marital status discrimination claim under the Minnesota Human Rights Act. The court ruled that to state an actionable claim of marital status discrimination, a plaintiff need not show that the alleged discrimination constituted a direct attack on the institution of marriage.

In the course of contacting some employment lawyers for their input on the decision, I was referred to another Court of Appeals ruling, an unpublished one that came down early last year, where a woman’s marital status discrimination claim was dismissed.

Savoren v. LSI Corporation of America involved the same defendant, the same work force reduction and the same defense attorneys as Taylor. In granting summary judgment for the defendants, the Savoren court said that since the 1988 amendment to the MHRA (which expanded the definition of marital status to include protection against discrimination on the basis of the identity, situation, actions or beliefs of a spouse or former spouse), the Court of Appeals “has held that to be actionable, the alleged marital-status discrimination must be ‘directed at the marital status itself.’” (The court went on to find that the plaintiff had not alleged that the discrimination was based on her husband’s situation, action or beliefs and there was no evidence that the defendant considered her marital status when it terminated her.)

I’m not sure how to square these two decisions. One panel, albeit in an unpublished decision, says marital-status discrimination must be “directed at the marital status itself,” while another says the discrimination need not constitute “a direct attack on the institution of marriage.”

The amendment to the definition of marital status has been in place for 22 years. Maybe it’s time for the Minnesota Supreme Court to give us a definitive ruling on what that amendment means.

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