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Monday, February 10, 2014

Be Careful Who You Date at Work

As Valentine’s Day approaches, some of you may be looking for that special someone to celebrate the holiday with. However, before asking out your co-worker, you may want to read this recent case from Massachusetts.  In Pierce v. Cotuit Fire Department, practically the entire fire department dated one another at one point. In a complex web of romance, the captain of the department was married to another firefighter in the department. Prior to this marriage, the captain had dated a different firefighter. This firefighter later married another firefighter, who, in turn, used to be married to another firefighter in the department. Amazingly, there were only sixteen firefighters in the Cotuit Fire Department. 

The problems started when the captain was accused of displaying favoritism towards his wife. This prompted the fire department board to create a new policy forbidding firefighters from supervising family members or working regular shifts with them. After further conflict with a co-worker embroiled the captain in more controversy, the fire board notified the captain that his marriage to a firefighter he supervised potentially violated Massachusetts’s ethics laws. This ethics law prohibited the captain from participating in his wife’s supervision, performance evaluations, promotions, or determining her compensation. The fire board notified the state ethics commission of the potential ethics violation in its fire department, which notified the captain of his potential violations of the state’s ethics laws.  The fire board first suspended, and ultimately terminated, the captain. 

Predictably, the captain sued the fire board, alleging that he was the victim of political discrimination and retaliation for exercising his rights under the Massachusetts Whistleblower Act. The district and appellate courts rejected these claims. The appellate court noted that there was not sufficient evidence to find that the captain was the victim of political discrimination in violation of the First Amendment or retaliation for exercising his rights under the whistleblower act. Instead, the court found that the fire board had just cause to fire the captain, due to his violations of Massachusetts’s ethics laws. 

Massachusetts is not unique in its laws restricting public employees from working with their family members. Many states have such anti-nepotism laws. Indiana has particularly strict anti-nepotism laws, which prohibit a local government employee from directly supervising a relative or making decisions about his pay, work assignments, grievances, promotions, or performance evaluations. Under these laws, "relative" includes a spouse, parent, child, sibling, niece or nephew, aunt or uncle, and half-, step- or in-law. Illinois laws require the disclosure of any potential nepotism in the awarding of school board contracts, and prevent judges from ruling on cases involving family members. The Illinois Supreme Court has upheld policies preventing married state troopers from serving together. Furthermore, nepotism can form the basis of a Title VII workplace discrimination lawsuit if it perpetuates racial, religious, national origin, or other forms of unlawful discrimination.  Even with broad authority to impose nepotism policies, it is best practice for all employers, including local governments, to make sure their employees are aware of any anti-nepotism policies. 

Post Authored by Matt DiCianni, Ancel Glink


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