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7th Circuit Upholds Company Firing HR Manager Who Refuses to Disclose Work Romance with Subordinate

September 15, 2017

On August 31, 2017, in Owens v. Old Wisconsin Sausage Company, the United States Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit affirmed a grant of summary judgment in favor of the employer in a discrimination and retaliation case involving the termination of a female employee who hired and supervised a male employee with whom she had a 6-year relationship. Old Wisconsin Sausage Company (Old Wisconsin) claimed that it terminated her due to her work performance, including that she made misleading or false statements that related to hiring and that her relationships may have influenced the hiring determination.

Plaintiff Jamie Owens (Owens), the sole female manager at Old Wisconsin, filed an employment discrimination suit that included claims of discrimination and retaliation under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (Title VII). This article addresses the rulings on her Title VII claims.

Owens was involved with hiring the male employee who became her subordinate, but she did not disclose to Old Wisconsin that they had a 6-year relationship. After employees complained that the male subordinate received preferential treatment from Owens, management questioned Owens about that relationship. Owens argued that the questioning was discrimination due to her sex. However, the evidence showed that male and female employees were treated similarly with questioning and that this was Old Wisconsin’s practice. Owens failed to present any evidence that male managers were not questioned in similar situations. She also failed to present any evidence that she was questioned because she was a female. Old Wisconsin had a legitimate interest in the questions because of the potential conflict caused by the personal relationship between a manager doing the hiring and an applicant and between a supervisor and a subordinate.

The summary judgment standard in an employment discrimination suit is “whether the evidence would permit a reasonable factfinder to conclude that Owens’ sex caused the termination.” Owens failed to present sufficient evidence for a reasonable fact finder to decide that her sex led to her termination.

As for her retaliation claim, given Old Wisconsin’s practice of questioning supervisors about their relationships, given the complaints by her co-workers of a conflict of interest, and given that although males were involved in relationships with subordinates Owens’ was the only one that was kept from management, Owens could not have had a reasonable and good faith belief that Old Wisconsin’s questioning of her was unlawful sexual harassment.

This article is a publication of MWH Law Group LLP and is intended to provide general information regarding legal issues and developments to our clients and other friends. It should not be construed as legal advice or a legal opinion on any specific facts or situations. For further information on your own situation, we encourage you to contact the author of the article or any other member of the firm.

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