Alienage Not Grounds for Employment Discrimination Lawsuit

Article Placeholder Image
By Robyn Hagan Cain on May 30, 2012 10:01 AM

Discrimination based on a person's national origin is a Title VII violation. Discrimination based on a person's alienage, however, is legal. The Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals ruled last week that a banker's spouse's legal status was not a valid basis for an employment discrimination lawsuit. (Brief thanks to BNA for bringing this case to our attention.)

So how does a banker get fired for her husband's alienage? By helping him open bank accounts.

Javier and Kristi Cortezano married in 2001, approximately four years after Javier unlawfully entered the U.S. Kristi started working for Salin Bank & Trust Company in 2007, and was quickly promoted within the company.

At some point after Kristi started at Salin, Javier attempted to start a car detailing and repair business. Given his undocumented status, he lacked a social security number to open a business banking account for his business. To open the accounts he needed, Javier obtained an individual tax identification number, (though it is unclear if he obtained it legally). Kristi then named Javier as a joint owner on her Salin Bank account, and helped him open two of his own accounts.

Had Javier's business thrived, the accounts might have gone unnoticed. Instead, his business failed, and he returned to Mexico to work on the U.S. citizenship process. Kristi revealed Javier's unauthorized status to Stacy Novotny, her supervisor at Salin Bank, in connection with her request for a two-week vacation during which she planned to attend proceedings in Mexico to help Javier obtain U.S. citizenship.

Novotny granted the vacation request, but she also 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, during which he emphasized his concern that Javier, as an "illegal alien from Mexico," must have used fraudulent documents to open his accounts.

Salin Bank drafted a termination notice to fire Kristi for complicit behavior in Javier's alleged fraud, but ultimately fired her for refusing to attend a meeting about the ongoing investigation into Javier's accounts.

Kristi filed an employment discrimination lawsuit Salin Bank, alleging national origin discrimination based on her marriage to a Mexican citizen whose presence in the United States was unauthorized.

The district court granted Salin Bank's motion for summary judgment, finding that Kristi failed to establish that her firing was based on an impermissible reason. The Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed, finding that any discrimination that led to Kristi's firing was not based on Javier's race or national origin, but rather on his status as an alien who lacked permission to be in the country. Because alienage is not a protected classification under Title VII, the Seventh Circuit concluded that Kristi had no claim for relief.

Related Resources: