Police Department’s Anti-Nepotism Rule Violates State Marital Discrimination Law, Leads To $323K In Damages

Caroline Allen worked for the Long Beach, California Police Department as a police officer. In December 1996, Caroline married Jim Allen, a police officer also employed by the Department. After a year, Jim transferred to the violent crimes detail within the adult investigation section of the detective division.

In April 1999, Caroline applied for a position in the forgery/fraud detail, which was also within the adult investigation section of the detective division. She was not granted an interview, and her application was rejected based on the Department’s nepotism policy.

Both of the Allens resigned from the Department, and Caroline sued the City, contending that the nepotism policy violated a California state law prohibiting discrimination based on marital status.

A jury awarded Caroline $18,823 for loss of past earnings, $300,000 for loss of future earnings, and $5,000 for emotional distress. Recently, the California Court of Appeals rejected the City’s appeal of the verdict.

The City’s nepotism policy at issue prohibited one spouse from supervising another, and prohibited the appointment of one spouse to a position where a potential conflict of interest or hazard would be greater for married couples than for other persons.

The Police Department enacted a further policy interpreting the City’s policy, and barred spouses from working within the same division. Since both of the jobs held or sought by the Allens were within the detective division, it was the Police Department’s policy that was at issue on appeal.

The City argued that the nepotism policy was facially neutral, and had the legitimate business purpose of avoiding conflicts of interest arising out of married officers working together in the same division. The Court disagreed, finding that the nepotism policy was “discriminatory on its face.” Important in the Court’s decision was that “the evidence did not show that any of the type of conflict that the Police Chief believed the nepotism policy would prevent had ever arisen at the division level. Therefore, it cannot be said that the policy advanced a legitimate business purpose.”

The City also argued that its nepotism policy was a reasonable regulation that did not violate the state law prohibiting discrimination on the basis of “marital status.” Once again, the Court disagreed, finding that “the evidence supports the jury’s finding that the Department’s policy was not a reasonable regulation. Indeed, the selection of the division level seems almost arbitrary. The Police Chief testified he was aware of only one incident where a married couple claimed the spousal privilege in the course of an investigation. In that incident, the couple was both employed in the same detail. Yet on that basis, the Chief decided to formulate the policy, without conducting a formal survey or knowing how many married couples the policy would impact. [Though the Chief did discuss the policy with his daughter and son-in-law, both of whom were employed by the Department] that discussion was not sufficient to support a finding of reasonableness, and there was no evidence that the marital status of officers created the potential for conflict of interest at the division level, greater than the section or detail level.”

Allen v. City of Long Beach, 2006 WL 2218220 (Cal.App. 2006).

This article appears in the September 2006 issue