Friday, May 3, 2019

At Will Employee Can Be Terminated Based on Spouse’s Actions

The First Amendment protects a number of rights of public employees-speech, political affiliation and the like. Rarely, if ever, have we heard of an employee who claimed that they were discharged in violation of their First Amendment right to intimate association. It happened recently in Iowa.

Tamela Muir, who was an at-will employee serving as a jailer and dispatcher for Decatur County Sheriff’s Office, was married to Bert Muir, who became the elected Sheriff of Decatur County. Ben Boswell became Muir’s Deputy Sheriff. 

Boswell received a complaint from a female dispatcher who alleged that Bert had sexually harassed her. An investigation followed and uncovered additional allegations of harassment. A petition, supported by six affidavits of Sheriff’s employees, was presented to Bert to remove him Sheriff . Bert immediately resigned. Boswell was named acting Sheriff, and placed Tamela on administrative leave upon advice that “problems” might arise if Tamela “was allowed to remain working around employees whom her husband had harassed, and who had signed affidavits in support of her husband’s removal from office.” 

Later, Boswell sent a termination letter to Tamela. Boswell stated in the letter that he did not want the employees to be concerned about retaliation from their complaints or that employees would find that he had divided loyalty between them and Bert. Tamela sued for unlawful discharge, claiming that the Sheriff violated her First Amendment right to intimate association by discharging her as a result of the allegations against her husband.

The 8th Circuit Court of Appeals found that the right to intimate association protects “the formation and preservation of certain kinds of highly personal relationships,” including marriage. but noted that when reviewing an intimate association, right-to-marry claim, the key question is whether the government “directly and substantially interfere[d] with the ... right to enter and maintain [a] marital relationship.” In other words, the right to marry “does not invalidate every state action that has some impact on marriage.”

Here, the 8th Circuit found:
“the fact that Tamela and Bert’s marriage was a motivating factor in Boswell’s decision to terminate Tamela does not mean that Boswell directly and substantially interfered with their marriage. Indeed, Boswell did not significantly discourage their marriage, make their marriage practically impossible, or act with the goal of poisoning their marriage.” 

We think if Tamela’s and Bert’s marriage became poisoned, it was far more likely the result of the six sexual harassment allegations and not Boswell’s termination of Tamela.