Beauty is in the Eye of the…Defendant? Termination for Attractiveness Found Not to be Gender Discrimination

Is cuteness a protected class? Most of our mothers would say it should be. However, a recent decision in New York found a woman could not bring suit against her former employer based on her allegation that she was terminated because the boss’s wife was concerned that her husband found the woman to be attractive. Ms. Dilek Edwards was hired as a yoga instructor and massage therapist at a Manhattan chiropractor practice. After working about a year,  one of the owners of the practice told Edwards that his wife (a co-owner of the business) might be jealous because she was “too cute.” Several months later, the owner’s wife terminated Edwards.

Edwards, rather than take this in a zen-like manner, filed suit under New York City’s Human Rights Law (see our prior blog post) claiming that her termination was gender discrimination since it was based on her protected “gender identity, self-image, appearance, behavior, or expression.” The Manhattan Supreme Court Judge held that spousal jealousy alone cannot constitute gender discrimination and noted that other jurisdictions had found that the sole status as an attractive female was not a protected class. In granting the Defendants’ motion to dismiss, the Judge noted

“With respect to whether appearance can be the basis of a discrimination claim…..courts have not found discrimination when the subject conduct or policy was not applied differently to men and women.”

This is not the first time that “cuteness” as grounds for termination has been the basis for litigation. In 2013, the Iowa Supreme Court held that a dentist could legally fire his assistant because she was an “irresistible attraction” to him. The dentist’s wife had demanded that he fire his attractive assistant and he did. The Court made the distinction that the termination was not based on gender itself, but instead based on “individual feelings and emotions regarding a specific person.” That decision was, to put it mildly, received with some controversy.

In both of these decisions, the courts emphasized that there was a spouse pushing for the termination based upon fear of future personal issues in the workplace. These unique decisions, however, do not give employers license to remedy or prevent sexual harassment by simply terminating an employee because he or she is “too attractive.”