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Federal Court: Employer Can’t Probe Workers’ Reasons for Divorce

On Behalf of | Aug 4, 2011 | Divorce

People sometimes marry purely for love’s sake, and sometimes for a number of complex, interrelated and highly personal reasons. The dissolution of a marriage is similar, in that divorce often owes as much to myriad factors and considerations as it does to a simple and single explanation.

It is not typically a court’s inclination or within its purview to closely inquire of a couple why they are getting married, and a federal appellate court has recently ruled that it is equally out of bounds to scrutinize the reasons for divorce.

That ruling is as certainly celebrated by people who cherish their personal privacy as it is a deep disappointment to Continental Airlines, the plaintiff in a recent legal battle pitting it against a number of its former pilots who the airline says got “sham” divorces in order to manipulate federal law and impermissibly collect pension benefits.

Specifically, the airline argued that nine of its former pilots divorced their partners after having noted other airlines turning over their pension obligations to the government. Fearing that this would lead to reduced outlays, the pilots divorced their spouses, which allowed the ex-spouses to take advantage of a federal law permitting payment of pension benefits before a worker retires. The former spouses collected the money and, in every case, re-married their partners.

To Continental, this constituted a scam. To the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, it constituted an act that — whatever its motivation — was of a private nature and beyond the proper inquiry of an employer. In other words, the airline had no business inquiring into its former employees’ divorces, notwithstanding that it considered them a sham.

The pilots are now suing Continental for wrongful termination and interference with their pension rights.

Related Resource: ABC News, “Pilots Win ‘Sham-Divorce’ Case Against Continental” July 20, 2011