As an avid Parks and Recreation fan, I cannot help but love the chemistry between newlyweds Leslie Knope and Ben Wyatt. Long before they were joining their dysfunctional families via a wedding with a punch heard round the world and a unity quilt (complete with a patch dedicated to waffles, of course), these two were navigating the complicated minefield of an office romance. Like a number of employers, the fictional City of Pawnee had enacted a policy against workplace dating, which posed a serious obstacle for Leslie and Ben’s budding romance. Clearly this story had a happy ending for the two lovebirds, but unfortunately that is not always the case in the real world where workplace romances all too often lead to messy litigation.
While there are countless cases of one party to a soured office romance later accusing a coworker of sexual harassment and denying that the relationship was ever consensual (particularly where the accused had supervisory authority over the accuser), there are also cases of non-parties to the romance attempting to file suit under a variety of creative theories. For example, in a case out of Texas, two employees entered into an extramarital affair. Their spouses decided to sue the company for negligently interfering in their familial relationships by failing to take action to prevent the affair. The case eventually went to the U.S. Supreme Court, which found in favor of the employer and helped establish that employers generally aren’t liable for failing to prevent office liaisons.
Angry spouses aren’t the only ones who have filed suit over workplace romances. Employees have sued for sex discrimination based on being passed over for a favored employment position due to a supervisor’s preference for his/her love interest or paramour. Nearly all courts have held that this type of action isn’t viable under Title VII because it doesn’t constitute discrimination on the basis of “sex.” Indeed, if a supervisor provides employment benefits to his/her paramour, all other employees (regardless of whether they are male or female) are similarly disadvantaged. Although such plaintiffs have been unsuccessful in their attempts to pursue such claims, the paramour cases are a reminder that, just because something is lawful, doesn’t make it a wise idea. Any savvy employer appreciates the toll that poor employee morale can have on productivity in the workplace.
Thankfully, we still get to enjoy the Leslie and Ben story lines in the safe confines of our living rooms while hopefully enjoying some Leslie-inspired Belgian waffles with extra whipped cream.