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Friday, August 12, 2011

Selecting an individual for promotion because of a romantic relationship does not constitute discrimination of the basis of gender


Selecting an individual for promotion because of a romantic relationship does not constitute discrimination of the basis of gender
Fella v Rockland County, 297 AD2d 813

Rockland County Director of Hospitals Peter J. Fella was charged with sexual harassment. Found guilty, the County Executive imposed the penalty of suspension without pay for thirty days. Fella sued in an effort to have County Executive's action annulled.

The harassment charge had been filed by Jovita Catalan, a county employee. Her complaint alleged that Fella appointed Anne Gonzales, with whom he had a “romantic relationship,” to the position of Assistant Director of Nursing.

Catalan filed her complaint pursuant to the Rockland County Equal Employment Opportunity Policy [RCEEOP] alleging she was subjected to “discrimination, harassment or retaliation” on January 4, 2000, the day that the Fella told her that she would not be appointed to the Assistant Director position. Catalan contended that Gonzales was less qualified than she was and that Gonzales was appointed because she was Fella's girlfriend.

After an investigation, the Rockland County Director of Employee Rights and Equity Compliance concluded that Fella's promotion of an employee with whom he had a personal relationship created a hostile work environment.

Supreme Court Judge Nelson ruled that Fella’s conduct in promoting his paramour may have constituted poor judgment, and may subject him to discipline on other grounds, but did not constitute sexual discrimination prohibited by the RCEEOP. As the County failed to establish that this single instance of alleged favoritism based on a sexual relationship was punishable under the RCEEOP, Supreme Court annulled the determination and remitted the matter to the County for further proceedings.

The Appellate Division affirmed the lower court’s ruling, observing that the relevant provisions of the RCEEOP:

Prohibits discrimination in hiring and promotion on the basis of gender or sex or sexual orientation;
Encourages advancement for qualified individuals regardless of gender or sex or sexual orientation; and
Provides that employment decisions shall be made on the basis of merit, fitness, and equality of opportunity and without discrimination on the basis of gender or sex or sexual orientation.

The RCEEOP also states that sexual harassment is a form of employment discrimination based on gender.*

The Appellate Division said “that an isolated act of preferential treatment of another employee due to a romantic, consensual relationship” does not constitute sexual discrimination under either federal or State Law. In the words of the court, Preferential treatment, favoritism, and cronyism, while unjust and unfair, do not constitute sexual discrimination.
 
Noting that there was no evidence that Fella discriminated against employees on the basis of gender or that he made unwelcome sexual advances or demands on employees, the finding that Fella created a hostile work environment in violation of the RCEEOP was ruled arbitrary, capricious, and without a rational basis. The Appellate Division concluded that compliant was properly annulled by the Supreme Court Judge.

In another “favoritism case,” DeCintio v Westchester County Medical Center, 821 F2d 111, cert. denied, 484 U.S. 965, the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, 2nd Circuit, decided that the selection of a woman romantically involved with her supervisor for promotion did not constitute unlawful gender discrimination within the meaning of Title VII insofar as her male co-workers were concerned.

In DeCintio, male employees sued, complaining that their supervisor had tailored the job requirements for the position in such a way as only his woman friend could qualify. This, they argued, was discrimination on the basis of sex within the meaning of Title VII.

The Circuit Court decided that as any female employee interested in the job would have been in the same position as the male employees, there was no sex discrimination involved. It was the “special relationship” between the supervisor and his woman friend rather than sex discrimination that had resulted in the preferential treatment to which the male employees had objected. While unfair, said the Court, the supervisor's actions did not constitute a violation of Title VII.

* The RCEEOP defines sexual harassment as unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors, sexual demands or conduct of a sexual nature which "has the purpose or affect of unreasonably interfering with an [affected] person's work performance or creating an intimidating, hostile or offensive work environment."

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