Fired for Getting Divorced: Columbia Professor Files Gender Bias and Marital Status Discrimination Lawsuit

gender bias

Pschiatric professor Maria Karayiorgou has filed a gender bias and marital status discrimination lawsuit against Columbia University under the New York City Human Rights Law. She says her invitation to the Zucker Institute was rescinded after her ex-husband notified the university of their divorce. Find out what happens when employers take sides, and whether you can be fired for getting divorced in New York City.

Did Columbia University Fire This Professor for Getting Divorced?

Dr. Maria Karayiorgou is a distinguished psychiatric research scientist. Between 1996 and 2006, she led a research laboratory named after her in association with the Rockefeller University. There she identified the first genetic risk factor for schizophrenia and was credited for her use of mouse modeling studies.

Starting in 1998, her husband, Dr. Joseph Gogos, at the time a neuroscience post-doctoral candidate at Columbia, began to work with the Karayiorgou Laboratory. Over the next ten years, he transitioned to working on the mouse modeling portion of the project full-time.

Then, in 2006, Karayiorgou was offered a position as a Professor of Psychiatry at Columbia University. Within four years, she became the Acting Director of the Medical Genetics Division in the Department of Psychiatry. In 2012 to 2013, Columbia launched the Zucker Institute. Karayiorgou was a featured speaker in a fundraising event for the institute in May 2013. Gogos became a member immediately as part of the Neuroscience Department. However, Karayiorgou’s invitation came later, in May 2014.

Then Karayiorgou and Gogos’s marriage broke down. Their divorce was finalized in December 2014 and in March 2015, Gogos emailed Columbia representatives telling them he did not want to work with Dr. Karayiorgou at the Zuckerman Institute. The representatives responded by rescinding Karayiorgou’s invitation to the Institute, emailing her to say “so when the acrimonious separation happened, there was little choice but to back Joseph.”

Karayiorgou objected to the dismissal. She filed a formal complaint for workplace discrimination with the Columbia Office of Equal Opportunity and Affirmative Action. When the university dismissed her concerns, she filed for gender bias in a marital status discrimination lawsuit in New York state court.

Is Marital Status Discrimination Illegal?

Most people know that it is illegal for your employer to treat you differently because of your gender. Sometimes family status can play a role in pregnancy discrimination cases. But is marital status discrimination illegal?

Unlike sex (gender), marital status is not a protected trait under the federal Civil Rights Act. Another federal law, the Civil Service Reform Act of 1978, protects federal employees from marital status discrimination. However, that law does not apply to private or state-level employees. That is probably why Dr. Karayiorgou based her gender and marital status discrimination lawsuit on the New York City Human Rights Law, instead.

The New York City Human Rights Law says it is unlawful discrimination for any employer to make hiring, firing, or compensation decisions based on a person’s marital status. In other words, in New York City, you can’t be fired for getting divorced.

To prove her case, Dr. Karayiorgou had to show:

  1. That she is a member of a protected class
  2. That she was qualified for the position
  3. That she was terminated or suffered an “adverse employment action”
  4. The discharge happened under circumstances that inferred discrimination

Once she established these four things, the attention of the court swung to the university. To avoid a finding of marital status discrimination, it needed to show a legitimate, independent, non-discriminatory reason for taking the employment action. If it did, then as a plaintiff, Dr. Karayiorgou could present evidence that this non-discriminatory reason was a pretext, and not the real reason the action was taken.

New York Supreme Court Judge Points to Gender Bias in the Workplace, and the Legal Briefs

Columbia University filed a motion in the lawsuit, asking New York Supreme Court Judge Lynn R. Kotler to rule there was no discrimination. It claimed that the only reason Dr. Karayiorgou’s invitation to the Zucker Institute had been offered in the first place was because of her work with Dr. Gogos. Essentially, Columbia’s lawyers attributed all Dr. Karayiorgou’s work with mouse modeling to her husband, calling her “limited presence” at the institute “entirely dependent… upon her continued research and collaboration” with Gogos.

But the judge didn’t believe them. Judge Kotler called Dr. Karayiorgou “a leading researcher and scientist” and noted that her invitation came almost five years after Gogos had begun working to develop the institute. The invitation made no reference to Gogos, nor did it imply she was to play any kind of supporting role to her ex-husband. In addressing Dr. Karayiorgou’s gender discrimination claims, the judge said:

“Columbia reduced plaintiff to being a supportive figure to Gogos even though she was the one who had made the breakthrough genetic discovery and created the mouse model.”

She found that a jury could determine that Columbia had discriminated against Dr. Karayiorgou on both gender and marital status grounds, and denied Columbia’s motion to dismiss the case.

At the end of Judge Kotler’s opinion, she had some stern words for Columbia’s attorneys:

Finally, defense counsel Wegrzyn’s characterization of plaintiff is not only insulting but [borders] on sexism. Plaintiff’s credentials, including her discovery on the 22q11 gene which is widely recognized in the scientific community, the grants and awards she has received and the papers she has written belie counsel’s gross mischaracterization of the plaintiff. While zealous advocacy is welcome and often appreciated, the insinuation that plaintiff played a secondary or subservient role to Gogos and that her career as a scientist was as a result of Gogos is an inappropriate mischaracterization of the facts.”

As the judge’s comment shows, it wasn’t just Columbia’s hiring decisions that were based on gender bias, their legal defense was as well. Fortunately, Judge Kotler saw through the attorneys’ mischaracterizations, and Dr. Karayiorgou’s gender and marital status discrimination case will live on to go before a jury.

At Eisenberg and Baum, LLP, our New York City-based gender discrimination attorneys know how to make city and state laws work for employees whose cases don’t quite fit under federal law. We know how to use the New York State Human Rights Law to protect against marital status discrimination, and what you can do if you were fired for getting divorced. We will help you negotiate with your employer, file the necessary administrative claims, and represent you in court. Contact us to schedule a consultation.

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