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“Cute” Yoga Instructor’s Sex Discrimination Case Goes Forward Against Former Playmate and Husband

Edgar M. Rivera, Esq.

On August 22, 2017, in Edwards v. Nicolai, the First Department Appellate Division—the appellate court of the counties of New York and the Bronx—overturned the trial court’s decision to dismiss gender discrimination claims, allowing Plaintiff Dilek Edwards to pursue her claims against Defendants Charles V. Nicolai and his wife, Stephanie Adams, a former Playboy Playmate. Ms. Edwards alleges that Mr. Nicolai and Ms. Adams—co-owners of Wall Street Chiropractic and Wellness (WSCW)—discriminated against her by terminating her employment because she was sexually attractive.

In April 2012, Mr. Nicolai hired Ms. Edwards as a yoga and massage therapist. According to Ms. Edwards, her relationship with Mr. Nicolai was “purely professional,” and Mr. Nicolai “regularly praised Plaintiff’s work performance throughout her period of employment.” In June 2013, however, Mr. Nicolai allegedly “informed Plaintiff that his wife might become jealous of Plaintiff, because Plaintiff was too cute.” Approximately four months later, Ms. Adams sent Ms. Edwards a text message stating, “You are NOT welcome any longer at Wall Street Chiropractic, DO NOT ever step foot in there again, and stay the [expletive] away from my husband and family!!!!!!! And remember I warned you.” A few hours later, Ms. Edwards allegedly received an email from Mr. Nicolai stating, “You are fired and no longer welcome in our office. If you call or try to come back, we will call the police.”

On May 13, 2016, Judge Shlomo S. Hagler granted defendants’ motion to dismiss plaintiff’s claims for gender discrimination in violation of the New York State Human Rights Law (NYSHRL) and the New York City Human Rights Law (NYCHRL). The Appellate Division disagreed, holding that the complaint asserted a cause of action for gender discrimination in violation of the NYSHRL and NYCHRL.

The Appellate Division stated that it was well established that adverse employment actions motivated by sexual attraction are gender-based and, therefore, constitute unlawful gender discrimination. In this case, the court reasoned, while Ms. Edwards did not allege that she was ever subjected to sexual harassment at WSCW, she alleges facts from which it can be inferred that Mr. Nicolai was motivated to discharge her by his desire to appease his wife’s unjustified jealousy, and that Ms. Adams was motivated by that same jealousy. Thus, the court concluded, each defendant’s motivation to terminate plaintiff’s employment was sexual in nature.

The court was not persuaded by defendants’ argument that they were motivated by “spousal jealousy” rather than gender, distinguishing the cases defendants cited for having involved consensual sexual affairs between the employer and the employee. In such cases, it was the employee’s behavior—not merely the employer’s attraction to the employee or the perception of such an attraction by the employer’s spouse—that prompted the termination. Here, Ms. Edwards had always behaved appropriately in interacting with Mr. Nicolai, and was fired for no reason other than Ms. Adams’s belief that Mr. Nicolai was sexually attracted to her, which states a cause of action for gender discrimination under the NYSHRL and the NYCHRL. The court noted that, while the trial court correctly observed that it is not necessarily unlawful for an employer to terminate an at-will employee at the urging of the employer’s spouse, such a discharge is actionable if the spouse urged the discharge for unlawful, gender-related reasons. What made Ms. Edwards’s discharge unlawful was not that Mr. Nicolai’s wife urged him to do it, but that the reason she urged him to do it and the reason he complied was based on her gender. In other words, had Ms. Edwards been a man, Ms. Adams would not have pushed Mr. Nicolai to terminate her.

If your employer has discriminated against you based on your gender, sex, or any other protected characteristic, contact The Harman Firm, LLP.

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