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Edwards v. Nicolai: Appellate Division First Department Holds There’s Nothing “Cute” About Sexual Harassment

September 22, 2017 • Posted By Victoria Kennedy • Complex Litigation, Labor & Employment, Risk Managment

A massage therapist allegedly terminated by her supervisor to quell his wife’s jealousy will have her day in court after the Appellate Division overturned the New York County Supreme Court decision which dismissed her discrimination claim.   In the matter of Edwards v. Nicolai, 2017 NY Slip. Op. 06235 (1st Dep’t Aug. 22, 2017), the message therapist Dilek Edwards, worked for approximately year at a wellness and chiropractic center owned by Charles Nicolai and his wife Stephanie Adams before she allegedly subjected to abusive behavior and then terminated.

Bloggers have drawn significant attention to this case by mischaracterizing Edward’s claim to be that she was fired for being “too cute”.  Since Nicolai allegedly warned Edwards that she would make his wife jealous because Edwards was “too cute”, Edwards incorrectly framed her cause of action to be one of “appearance discrimination.” As Justice Shlomo Hagler correctly found when dismissing the claim, the law has not recognized a theory of “appearance discrimination”. 

            However, it appears that the Supreme Court gave too little weight to the numerous verbal attacks and hostile behavior allegedly inflicted on Edwards long after Nicolai’s offending remark.  According to Edwards, Nicolai praised her work until Adams became suspicious without justification.  Then Nicolai supposedly joined in his wife’s abusive conduct to appease her.  

The First Department correctly observed that if Edward’s allegations are true—which the court must assume when deciding a motion to dismiss—then, Edwards stated a cause of action for gender discrimination based on sexual harassment.  As the court explained, “adverse employment actions motivated by sexual attraction are gender-based, and therefore, constitute unlawful gender discrimination”.  In other words, Edwards was not just terminated solely because she was “too cute” regardless of sensational headlines implying as much.  As it turns out, she had a valid claim, even if her complaint did not properly frame the cause of action.  Although the court distinguished these facts from prior cases in which employers terminated employees at the urging of his or her spouse for ostensibly non-gender related reasons, it would not be surprising if judges start taking a closer look at the reality of spousal influence in employment decisions after Edwards. Thus, when employers and/or employees are in doubt as to what actions to take regarding personal conflicts in the work place, consulting legal counsel beforehand is the safest bet.

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