A St. Cloud auto parts chain has paid $50,000 to a former employee who was fired because her husband went to work for a competing auto parts retailer, the state Department of Human Rights announced Thursday.
The department said the termination of JoDee Goblirsch from an Auto Value Parts store amounted to marriage discrimination. Because of that, the state sued the store’s parent company, Automotive Parts Headquarters Inc. It was the state’s first marriage discrimination lawsuit in at least 10 years, Human Rights Commissioner Kevin Lindsey said.
The company, which also paid a $5,000 fine, admitted that it fired Goblirsch because of her husband’s new job but said that it wasn’t discrimination, the agency said.
Goblirsch has since gotten a divorce, but three years ago, she and her then-husband worked for Auto Value Parts stores. She was a bookkeeper at the store in Willmar, while he managed a store in Bird Island. In the spring of 2010, he decided to take a job at Napa Auto Parts. He submitted his two-week notice in April 2010 but was told if he quit, his wife would be fired, according to the human rights complaint.
“I took it as a threat because they didn’t want him to leave,” Goblirsch, 26, said in an interview Thursday.
When she told her supervisor about the threat, she was told this had happened before, and it would likely happen to her, Goblirsch said. On her husband’s last day of work, she was handed her paycheck and told to leave.
“I was in shock,” said Goblirsch, who had worked at the Willmar Auto Value store for nearly three years. “I loved my job and all the people there. Honestly, I never really thought of leaving.”
Goblirsch hired a lawyer and filed a complaint with the Minnesota Department of Human Rights. In September 2011, the state found the company had discriminated against Goblirsch on the basis of her marital status.
Automotive Parts argued that Goblirsch was let go because her husband’s move violated its conflict-of-interest policy and because she had access to privileged information. According to the company, a 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 … as a result of [the company’s] business dealings.”
The department found the policy was too broad and found that every employee had access to the same information as Goblirsch.
In its findings, the department concluded “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.”
“What was driving this was the relationship with her husband,” Lindsey said. “The employer should not be able to presume that just because they are married she is going to pass on information to her husband.”
In the settlement agreement, the company said it was doing so to avoid the cost of litigation but denied discriminating. The company also agreed to review its policy and provide training to managers on fair employment provisions.
Aaron Fisk, human resource manager for Automotive Parts, would not comment on the case but said the company “does not promote discrimination or harassment.”
Goblirsch, who lives in Willmar, said it took her nearly two years to find a job after she was fired. She now works at Copperleaf Senior Living as a part-time cook and is also pursuing a degree in early childhood education at Ridgewater College in Willmar. She said her divorce wasn’t related to the case.
She said the settlement was not enough to cover her lost wages after she was fired. “I think they should have done more,” she said about Automotive Parts.
Alejandra Matos • 612-673-4028 Twitter: @amatos12