Case Studies: Marital Status

Charge of Marital Status Discrimination Leads to $50,000 Settlement

Case #56498, Closed May 3, 2013

Respondent
Automotive Parts Headquarters, Inc.
2959 Clearwater Road St. Cloud, MN 56301

Charging Party
JoDee Goblirsch
Pennock, MN

JoDee Goblirsch and her husband both worked for same automotive parts company, headquartered in St. Cloud. When her husband quit and took a job with a retail competitor, the company fired Ms. Goblirsch. There was probable cause to believe there was marital discrimination, in violation of the Minnesota Human Rights Act, the Department of Human Rights found.

Factual Basis of the Allegations - What the Charging Party Alleged

JoDee Goblirsch worked as a bookkeeper, delivery person and performed a variety of other duties at the Auto Value Parts Store in Willmar, MN. Her husband had also worked at the Willmar store, and later as the manager of an Auto Value store in Bird Island, MN.

In April 2010, Mr. Goblirsch submitted his two-week notice, having accepted a job with Napa Autoparts in Olivia, MN. Although JoDee had consistently received satisfactory or better performance evaluations, Auto Value's regional manager warned Mr. Goblirsch that his wife could lose her job if he accepted the position, because the company did not like family members working for competitors.

When she learned about this conversation from her husband, JoDee Goblirsch spoke with her boss. He confirmed that her job could be in jeopardy, and that employees had been terminated at some of the other 100+ stores owned and operated by Auto Value when family members went to work for other auto parts retailers.

Ms. Goblirsch's concerns proved justified. On her husband's last day of work, JoDee Goblirsch was called into her boss's office and told she was fired, and that the reason was her husband's decision to take a job with Napa.

She requested and received a written statement from the company, in which Auto Value confirmed that her termination due to her husband's decision to go to work for a competitor.

On July 16, 2010, JoDee Goblirsch filed a charge of discrimination based on marital status with the Minnesota Department of Human Rights.

Summary of the Commissioner's Memorandum — What the Department's Investigation Found

In answering the charge, the company maintained that it had not discriminated against JoDee Goblirsch in any way. Her husband's move to a competitor violated the company's legitimate conflict of interest policy, the company claimed. In her role as a bookkeeper, Ms. Goblirsch would have access to privileged information, the company argued, including customer pricing information, customer invoices, credit account information and customer purchasing and product information.

As to what constitutes a conflict of interest, the company's rules stated: "A potential or actual conflict of interest occurs whenever an employee is in a position to influence a decision that may result in a personal gain for the employee or an immediate family member (i.e., spouse or significant other, children, parents, siblings) as a result of [the company's] business dealings."

The Department of Human Rights determined that the company's conflict of interest policy was overly broad. Witness testimony indicated that virtually all employees of the store would have access to the information Auto Value had cited as privileged – most could access the information by simply logging in to a cash register. Delivery drivers might be an exception, but there was evidence that many of them, too, would have access, since drivers were frequently cross-trained to perform other duties within the store.

The company's conflict of interest policy would threaten the employment of the vast majority of Auto Value employees, should a spouse go to work for a competitor, the Department found. With so many employees able to access "sensitive" or "privileged" information, "it is not reasonable to claim that a policy with such broad, punitive applicability is legitimately necessary to preserve market competitiveness," the Department concluded.

The company's conflict of interest policy was therefore not a legitimate, non-discriminatory basis for terminating Goblirsch, the Department concluded. But even if the company's policy had not been problematic, the company had indicated that the delivery driver role did not represent a conflict of interest. Ms. Goblirsch had been initially hired as a delivery driver, and had continued performing delivery duties during here entire tenure at the company. Yet the company had failed to retain her, even in a delivery role. This suggested to the Department that company's conflict of interest policy was in this case a pretext.

The Department found probable cause to believe that the company had engaged in discrimination in employment on the basis of marital status, in violation of the Human Rights Act.

Terms of Settlement

In a settlement negotiated with the Department of Human Rights, the respondent, Automotive Parts Headquarters, Inc., agreed:

  • To pay $50,000 to JoDee Goblirsch and her attorneys;
  • To provide training on the fair employment provisions of the Human Rights Act to management staff at all Minnesota stores;
  • To review its policies and procedures to ensure compliance with the Human Rights Act;
  • To pay $5,000 to the Minnesota Department of Human Rights as a civil penalty.

The respondents deny that they violated the Minnesota Human Right Act (MHRA), and the settlement of this case does not constitute an admission of any liability of violating the MHRA or any other law, or of any wrongdoing.

The Department of Human Rights publishes information about selected cases and settlement agreements as part of its mandate under the Human Rights Act to "educate to eliminate" discrimination. Settlement agreements do not constitute an admission of any liability, an admission of a violation of the Minnesota Human Rights Act or any other law, or an admission of wrongdoing by the respondents.