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Manager Lacks Title VII Claim Based on Marriage to Illegal Immigrant

A bank sales manager who alleged she was fired because of her marriage to an undocumented immigrant from Mexico lacks a national origin discrimination claim  under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, according to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit decision on May 21, 2012, in Cortezano v. Salin Bank & Trust Co.A man named Javier unlawfully entered the U.S. in 1997, and he married Kristi Cortezano in 2001. Six years later, the bank hired her. The husband, who was attempting to start a business, could not open a bank account without a social security number. He obtained an individual tax identification number.

His wife named him as the joint owner on her account and helped use his ITIN to open accounts of his own. The business failed. As any lawyer for defending Title VII claims would tell you, it was a complicated situation from the very beginning.

When the husband returned to Mexico to deal with his citizenship issues, the wife revealed the situation to her supervisor and requested time off to help her husband obtain citizenship. The supervisor agreed and called the bank security officer, who was concerned that the opening of these accounts might have violated bank fraud laws.

During a meeting, the security officer allegedly became angry and berated the wife. She refused to attend another meeting without her attorney. The bank terminated her employment and reported her activity to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement and a consortium of area banks.

Affirming a ruling in favor of Salin Bank & Trust Co. in Indiana, the Seventh Circuit first assumed without deciding that the statute prohibits employer bias based on the race or national origin of an employee’s spouse. An experienced lawyer for defending Title VII claims would agree that this is the right application of the law.

Even if the law does prohibit employer bias based on an employee’s spouse, the appeals court said, Kristi Cortezano’s claim still fails because Title VII does not protect against immigration or citizenship status discrimination.

The court found that it is “beyond dispute” that Cortezano’s discharge was motivated by the illegal immigration status of her husband — who had opened personal and business accounts at the bank — and not his Mexican ancestry.

If the alleged facts had been slightly different — for example, if the security officer allegedly made a derogatory comment about her husband’s Mexican ancestry —Cortezano could have brought a discrimination claim based on the national origin of an employee’s spouse. Had that occurred, a lawyer for defending Title VII claims would have had a very interesting case on their hands.

By Don Benson