On May 21, 2012, the United States Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit addressed whether Title VII applies to discrimination claims brought by the spouse of a Mexican citizen based upon the allegation that she suffered an adverse employment action because of her husband’s alienage.
In 1997, Javier Cortezano illegally entered the United States, he met Kristi some time later, and they married in 2001. Approximately six years later, Salin Bank hired Kristi as a Manager in Training. She performed quite well, was promoted to Bank Sales Manager and was then transferred to a more profitable location. During this timeframe, Javier attempted to start a car detailing and repair business. He obtained an individual tax ID number and opened a business banking account at Salin Bank, with Kristi as a joint owner on the account. The business failed, and Javier returned to Mexico in December 2007 to work on his citizenship status.
Around that time, Kristi disclosed Javier’s unauthorized status to her supervisor, Stacy Novotny, at Salin Bank. Novotny called Salin Bank’s security officer, Mike Hubbs, and told him that Kristi had joint accounts at the bank with a known undocumented alien. Concerned that this arrangement might implicate laws against bank fraud, Hubbs scheduled a meeting with Novotny and Kristi for February 11, 2008.
During this meeting, Kristi admitted that Javier had illegally entered the United States and indicated that he was in Mexico trying to obtain a visa or U.S. citizenship. Unconvinced by Kristi’s statements, Hubbs advised her that he would be filing an internal Suspicious Activity Report. On February 19, 2008, Kristi and her attorney attempted to attend a scheduled meeting with Salin Bank regarding the ongoing investigation; however, Salin Bank refused to permit Kristi’s attorney to attend the meeting and they subsequently left. That afternoon, Salin Bank sent a letter to Kristi terminating her employment for refusing to participate in the meeting.
Kristi then filed suit against Salin Bank alleging, among other claims, national origin discrimination based on her marriage to a Mexican citizen whose residence in the United States was unauthorized.
The court held that, even assuming that Title VII applies to discrimination against one’s spouse (which is undecided in the Seventh Circuit), Kristi’s claim falls short because it is based on Javier’s alienage, which is not protected by the statute. More specifically, the court noted that national origin discrimination encompasses discrimination based on one’s ancestry, but not discrimination based on citizenship or immigration status. As such, Title VII does not protect against alienage-based discrimination and Kristi’s claim in this regard is unsustainable.
Consistent with this decision, it is important to note that while several courts have found Title VII discrimination claims viable even though the alleged discrimination takes place against a person’s spouse or partner and not the complaining party (“associational discrimination”), the underlying discrimination itself must still fall into a protected category to be protected by the statute.
Contact: Jaime A. Maurer