NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- Gary Clarke lost around $30,000 in annual pay and
was demoted by a public utility company in Tennessee after he married
his longtime girlfriend.
Clarke's new father-in-law was an
employee at Nashville Electric Service, where Clarke worked as a cable
splicer. When the company determined that his 2007 marriage to Sabrina
Ragan violated its nepotism policy, Clarke was moved to a lesser job in a
Clarke, a 38-year-old Lebanon man who had
worked at the utility for nearly a decade, became a meter service
technician at the utility, which employs nearly 1,000 people. After he
tried unsuccessfully to resolve the dispute through an administrative
process, Clarke then filed a complaint against NES in state court.
Court of Appeals of Tennessee recently affirmed the trial court's
decision that the public utility's use of its nepotism policy,
forbidding employees from supervising or closely working with a
relative, was "arbitrary" and "capricious." The policy is intended to
prevent workplace discrimination and bias in hiring.
NES is not
alone in arbitrarily applying its nepotism policy to employees,
according to labor attorney Michelle Owens, the attorney for Clarke's
union, the Service Employees International Union, who filed the
complaint on his behalf. Many public and private companies in Tennessee
invoke the rules over-cautiously, even when there is not a clear
conflict of interest, she said.
"The opinion means that employers
can't make up nepotism policies as they go along," Owens said. "The
far-reaching implication is that companies have to follow their nepotism
Clarke, who still works for NES, declined to comment on the case.
NES officials would not say whether they plan to appeal the opinion to the state Supreme Court. They have 60 days to do so.
NES spokesman William Hill said by email that the utility "believes a
nepotism policy is important to the effective functioning of the
organization and is consistent with best practices."
at the heart of the clash was whether Clarke worked in the same NES
"section" as Kevin Snider, who became Clarke's father-in-law.
to NES' policy, no employee can work under the supervision of a
relative, defined as "a spouse, child, parent, brother, sister, or
in-law," either directly or indirectly. It also says that no two
relatives can work in the same "section," a term the courts found to be
Snider, a maintenance mechanic, did not supervise Clarke,
nor did the two men work together, according to the appeals court.
Still, because of an organizational change years before, NES technically
considered them to be in the same "section."
But that argument was rejected by both courts.
commonplace for companies to prevent employees from supervising
relatives, but as this case shows, the policies are often hard to
manage," Owens said. "This win shows how ludicrous the demotion was in
the first place."
What is distinct about NES' policy is the
broadness of the rule. Not all employers consider an in-law a relative
in nepotism policies. Because NES does, there have been cases of
employees unknowingly breaking the rule.
Doug Collier, president
of SEIU Local 205, which represents 650 of the public utility's
employees, said the union agreed to pursue Clarke's case because of how
egregiously unfair the rule was applied.
"Sometimes there is really no problem, no nepotism, but the system doesn't see it that way."
Bobby Allyn, The Tennessean