We here consider the effect of the marital status anti-discrimination clause in AS 18.80.220(a)(1). After an unmarried couple sued their former employer, the United States District Court for the District of Alaska certified to us the following two questions: whether AS 18.80.220(a)(1) prevents an employer from discriminating against an employee "based on the identity of his spouse," and whether AS 18.80.220(a)(1) is limited to preventing employers from discriminating based on the status of being married. We answer these questions "no," and "yes," respectively. Although AS 18.80.220(a)(1) prevents employers from discriminating based on the marital status of their employees, it does not prevent discrimination based on the identity of the employee's spouse or future spouse.
II. FACTS AND PROCEEDINGS
Bambi (Relkin) Muller and Lowell Relkin sued BP Exploration Alaska, Inc. (BP) in 1993 in the Alaska superior court, alleging
The district court granted summary judgment to BP on all claims, except plaintiffs' claim of "marital status" discrimination. Recognizing that there was no controlling Alaska decisional precedent, the district court certified the following questions to us pursuant to Alaska Appellate Rule 407(a):
We agreed to answer these questions.
The district court found the following facts:
At oral argument before us, their counsel asserted that Muller and Relkin were coemployees, and that although initially Relkin was Muller's supervisor, ultimately neither was in a supervisory position over the other.
The meaning of the term "marital status" in AS 18.80.220(a)(1) presents an issue of first impression in Alaska. Muller and Relkin ask us to interpret the term "expansively," to prohibit employment discrimination based on the identity of one's spouse, not just on the condition of being married or unmarried. They argue that an expansive interpretation of "marital status" is suited to preventing the discriminatory practices contemplated by the Alaska legislature in enacting the Alaska Human Rights Act (AHRA). BP responds that elementary principles of statutory interpretation and considerations of public policy require that "marital status" be interpreted in accordance with the plain meaning of that term.
Alaska Statute 18.80.220 provides in relevant part:
However, AS 18.80.220 does not define the term "marital status." We use our independent judgment to determine what the legislature intended by this term. Alaska State Comm'n for Human Rights v. State, 796 P.2d 458, 460 (Alaska 1990) (holding that Commission's interpretation of AS 18.80 is reviewed de novo).
Other jurisdictions that have considered whether prohibiting employment discrimination based on "marital status" precludes discrimination based on the identity of a person's spouse are split. Some courts considering this issue have construed "marital status" to mean the condition of being married based on the plain meaning of the term. Maryland Comm'n on Human Relations v. Greenbelt Homes, Inc., 300 Md. 75, 475 A.2d 1192 (1984); Whirlpool Corp. v. Michigan Civil Rights Comm'n, 425 Mich. 527, 390 N.W.2d 625 (1986); Manhattan Pizza Hut, Inc. v. New York State Human Rights Appeal Bd., 51 N.Y.2d 506, 434 N.Y.S.2d 961, 415 N.E.2d 950 (1980). Others have construed "marital status" as having a more expansive meaning, in furtherance of perceived legislative intent. Ross v. Stouffer Hotel Co., 72 Haw. 350, 816 P.2d 302 (1991); River Bend Community Unit Sch. Dist. No. 2 v. Human Rights Comm'n, 232 Ill.App.3d 838, 173 Ill.Dec. 868, 597 N.E.2d 842 (1992); Kraft, Inc. v. State, 284 N.W.2d 386 (Minn. 1979); Thompson v. Board of Trustees, 192 Mont. 266, 627 P.2d 1229 (1981); Washington Water Power Co. v. Washington State Human Rights Comm'n, 91 Wn.2d 62, 586 P.2d 1149 (1978). Many of these decisions are the products of closely divided courts.
A. Statutory Interpretation
In construing the meaning of a statute, we look to the meaning of the language, the legislative history, and the purpose of the statute in question. "The goal of statutory construction is to give effect to the legislature's intent, with due regard for the meaning the statutory language conveys to others." Tesoro Alaska Petroleum Co. v. State, 746 P.2d 896, 905 (Alaska 1987). "Because this is a case of first impression in this state, `[o]ur duty is to adopt the rule of law that is most persuasive in light of precedent, reason, and policy.'" Foreman v. Anchorage Equal Rights Comm'n, 779 P.2d at 1201 (alteration in original) (quoting Guin v. Ha, 591 P.2d 1281, 1284 n. 6 (Alaska 1979)).
B. Plain Meaning
We have rejected a mechanical application of the plain meaning rule in matters of statutory interpretation, and have adopted a sliding scale approach instead. State v. Alex, 646 P.2d 203, 208-09 n. 4 (Alaska 1982) (citing State, Dep't of Natural Resources v. City
In assessing statutory language, "unless words have acquired a peculiar meaning, by virtue of statutory definition or judicial construction, they are to be construed in accordance with their common usage." Tesoro Alaska, 746 P.2d at 905; Wilson v. Municipality of Anchorage, 669 P.2d 569, 571-72 (Alaska 1983). The most common meaning of "marital status" is the actual condition of being married or unmarried.
Muller and Relkin contend that if the meaning of "marital status" were "plain," the district court would not have asked us to interpret the term. In one sense this is true. If the term were so plain that it could not reasonably permit the broad construction they urge, that court would have had no reason to refer the issue to us. We do not suggest that the broad construction is altogether unreasonable, only that it stretches the meaning of the term "marital status" beyond the limits of normal usage, which is the sense in which we use the phrase "plain meaning."
We find that, in accordance with common usage, the plain meaning of the term "marital status" is the condition of being married or unmarried. We will apply this meaning absent convincing evidence of a contrary legislative purpose. Anchorage Sch. Dist., 857 P.2d at 1189.
C. Legislative History
The AHRA was first enacted in 1965. It was amended in 1975 to include a prohibition against discrimination in employment on the basis of marital status or changes in marital status. However, the legislative history of this 1975 amendment contains no discussion of the meaning of "marital status," or of any effect the amendment might have on anti-nepotism laws.
The legislature's failure to discuss the specific meaning and effect of the term "marital status" indicates that it did not intend the term to include the identity of one's spouse. "It is assumed that whenever the legislature enacts a provision, it has in mind previous statutes relating to the same subject matter, and all should be construed together." Hafling v. Inlandboatmen's Union of the Pacific, 585 P.2d 870, 877 (Alaska 1978). If the legislature had intended some meaning other than the plain meaning, the 1975 amendment would have merited a discussion of the exact meaning of the term to be applied. Discussion also would have been merited concerning the effect of the amendment on existing statutes, including anti-nepotism laws.
Justice Wakatsuki of the Supreme Court of Hawaii agreed with this analysis in his dissent in Ross v. Stouffer Hotel Co., 72 Haw. 350, 816 P.2d 302, 304-05 (1991). In finding that the plain meaning of "marital status" should have been applied, he stated:
Id., 816 P.2d at 305 (citing Manhattan Pizza Hut, Inc., 434 N.Y.S.2d 961, 415 N.E.2d at 953).
Anti-nepotism and no-spouse policies have been adopted by many businesses in Alaska. In addition, anti-nepotism statutes prevent certain people from having supervisory positions over each other in the Alaska state government. See, e.g., AS 24.60.090 (relative of legislator may not be employed by house of which legislator is a member while it is in session, or by either house in the interim, and relative of legislative employee may not be employed in a position over which such person has supervisory authority); AS 39.90.020 (unlawful for relative of "executive head of a principal state department or agency to be employed in that department or agency"); AS 14.14.140 (restricting employment by schools of immediate family members of school board members and chief school administrators). We have stated that "`[w]here a reasonable construction of a statute can be adopted which realizes the legislative intent and avoids conflict or inconsistency with another statute this should be done.'" State v. Patterson, 740 P.2d 944, 948 (Alaska 1987) (quoting Gordon v. Burgess Constr. Co., 425 P.2d 602, 604 (Alaska 1967)) (alteration in original). Consequently, we find that the lack of discussion in the legislative history supports a conclusion that the legislature intended that "marital status" be interpreted according to its plain meaning.
Muller and Relkin argue that these anti-nepotism laws would not necessarily be invalidated under the more expansive interpretation of the term "marital status," because they would come within the "reasonable demands" exception to AS 18.80.220(a)(1).
This statutory exception provides that employment discrimination on the basis of otherwise forbidden criteria is permissible if "the reasonable demands of the position require" such a distinction to be made. However, this exception is extremely limited. In McLean v. State, 583 P.2d 867, 869 (Alaska 1978), we held:
The state anti-nepotism laws cited above require that an employee not be related to a person with influence over their employment in certain government institutions. Assuming that the legislature did intend the more expansive interpretation of "marital status," the anti-nepotism laws cited would require discrimination based on the identity of one's spouse. Assuming also that the desire to
However, this would not alter our view of the legislative history. We assume that if the legislature had intended the more expansive meaning of "marital status," it would have recognized and discussed the potential conflict between the 1975 amendment and the anti-nepotism laws and employment practices. Assuming also that the legislature concluded that the statutory "reasonable demands" exception applied, avoiding both the statutory conflict and the invalidation of private employment practices, we nonetheless think it most likely that the legislature would have discussed the conflict and its resolution. Because the legislature engaged in no such discussion, we interpret its silence as an indication that it intended the plain meaning of the term to apply.
D. Purpose of the AHRA
In interpreting a statute, we also look to the language of the statute in light of the purposes for which it was enacted. Tesoro Alaska, 746 P.2d at 904.
In stating the purpose of AS 18.80, the legislature found
AS 18.80.200(a). Alaska Statute 18.80 was enacted in order to
Muller and Relkin argue that an expansive interpretation of "marital status" is more in keeping with the purposes of the AHRA. They contend that interpreting "marital status" narrowly may lead to results that do not protect married couples from employment discrimination.
BP counters that the plain meaning of "marital status" better comports with the purposes of the AHRA. We agree. The purpose of the AHRA is to prevent prejudices and biases borne against persons who are members of certain protected classes; it seeks to eliminate the effects of offensive or demeaning stereotypes, prejudices, and biases against the members of those classes.
Anti-nepotism policies exist to prevent "potential emotional interference with job performance, collusion in grievance disputes, favoritism, morale problems resulting from the appearance of favoritism, and conflicts of interests that arise if an employee is required to supervise the employee's spouse." Miller, 362 N.W.2d at 654. "Whether these reasons are valid in all circumstances or not, they do not appear to reflect offensive or demeaning stereotypes, prejudices, or biases." Id. Therefore, interpreting "marital status" as plaintiffs propose would not advance the AHRA's purpose of protecting class members from prejudices or biases borne against them. See Whirlpool Corp., 390 N.W.2d at 626-27 (holding that the legislative intent behind the Michigan Civil Rights Act was to prevent prejudice against persons based on their membership in a particular class, and to eliminate "the effects of offensive or demeaning stereotypes, prejudices, and biases"; consequently, the no-spouse rule was not discrimination on the basis of marital status, but instead was permissible "different treatment based on the fact that one's spouse works in the same place").
Similarly, we find that the purpose of AS 18.80.220 is to prohibit discrimination against a person based on his or her condition of being married or unmarried, not on the identity of one's spouse. To whom one is married is not a class-defining factor, unlike all the other factors listed in AS 18.80.220(a)(1). Extending the reach of the anti-discrimination law to employment decisions based on to whom a person is married would change the focus of the law from discrimination based on broad categories, which can give rise to demeaning stereotypes and biases, to a highly individual factor. Thus, adopting Muller's and Relkin's interpretation of "marital status" would be inconsistent with the structure and purpose of the statute, because it would prohibit discrimination based on individual rather than class factors.
We have held that "Alaska's civil rights statute should be broadly construed `to further the goal of eradication of discrimination.'" Alaska USA Fed. Credit Union v. Fridriksson, 642 P.2d 804, 806 (1982) (holding that a nonprofit credit union was an employer for purposes of AS 18.80, and thus subject to the prohibition on sex discrimination) (quoting Wondzell v. Alaska Wood Products, Inc., 601 P.2d 584, 585 (Alaska 1979)). We have also held that "Alaska's anti-discrimination statute gives the [Alaska Human Rights] Commission a more aggressive mandate than that held [under federal law]." State v. Meyer, 906 P.2d 1365, 1372 (Alaska 1995). We have long recognized the strong statement of purpose of AS 18.80, and "its avowed determination to protect the civil rights of all Alaska citizens." Loomis Elec. Protection, Inc. v. Schaefer, 549 P.2d 1341, 1343 (Alaska 1976) (holding that compensatory and punitive damages are available as relief under AS 18.80). Accordingly, we conclude that the plain meaning of the term "marital status" achieves the goal of AS 18.80.220 of eradicating discrimination against a person based on the condition of being married or unmarried, and thus best serves the purposes of the AHRA.
E. Public Policy
Muller and Relkin argue that the protection afforded by the expansive interpretation of "marital status" "comports with Alaska's policy of encouraging marriage and family." They also argue that a narrow interpretation will impinge upon an individual's right to choose his or her own marital status unimpaired by improper influences.
Muller and Relkin contend that the risk of having the choice of marital status impaired by improper influences is particularly strong in Alaska, where the job market is limited and, in some places, dominated by one or a few employers. Muller and Relkin characterize the relevant job market in the narrowest way possible, saying: "plaintiffs had little choice but to be employed by defendant BP on the North Slope of Alaska." If BP strictly enforces its anti-nepotism policy, Muller and Relkin are "left ... with a Hobson's choice of [either] one of them giving up his or her employment, or their [not getting married], and continuing [their romantic relationship] and being employed in their chosen occupation." Ross, 816 P.2d at 304; see also Kraft, Inc., 284 N.W.2d at 388; Manhattan Pizza Hut, Inc., 434 N.Y.S.2d 961, 415 N.E.2d at 955 (Cooke, C.J., dissenting).
The state has an interest in protecting a person's right to choose the form that his or her relationships will take. It is for precisely this reason that the AHRA prohibits discrimination on the basis of whether one is married or unmarried. See Foreman, 779 P.2d at 1202-03 (holding AHRA prohibits discrimination against unmarried cohabiting individuals). However, the state also has an interest in protecting the interests of its businesses and companies by allowing them to adopt reasonable employment policies. Therefore, although a person's employment may be affected by the identity of his or her spouse, that effect does not violate the public policy that initially mandated Alaska's anti-discrimination legislation.
F. Agency Interpretation
The dissent asserts that the promulgation of 6 Alaska Administrative Code (AAC) 30.990(a)(8) (1995) establishes that the Human Rights Commission interprets the statutory marital status protection to encompass the identity of one's spouse.
In answer to the certified questions, we hold that AS 18.80.220(a)(1) is limited to
COMPTON, Chief Justice, dissenting.
In response to a certified question of law from the United States District Court for the District of Alaska, see Alaska R.App. P. 407, the court holds that AS 18.80.220(a)(1), which prohibits discrimination based on, inter alia, marital status, "is limited to preventing employers from discriminating against an employee based on the status of being married, and does not prohibit an employer from discriminating against an employee based on the identity of his or her spouse or future spouse." Op. at 793. I think this conclusion runs counter to the letter and spirit of the statute.
The court suggests that the plain meaning of the term "marital status" in AS 18.80.220 dictates the outcome, Op. at 788, and I agree, but the outcome I see the plain meaning producing is quite different from that the court reaches. Pursuant to company policy, any BP employee who supervises a spouse or is supervised by a spouse must be transferred or terminated. BP's policy therefore discriminates based on marital status. When a BP employee is transferred or terminated under the policy, it is the employee's marital status which is the cause of the transfer or termination. If the employee were to divorce or to remain single and cohabit with the supervising or supervised employee, the employee would not be subject to the policy. In other words, marital status is the predicate for the discrimination. The policy violates AS 18.80.220(a)(1).
Given this divergence of opinion, it must be conceded that the meaning of "marital status" is far from plain. The close split among jurisdictions considering the issue is proof enough of this. I am more persuaded by those decisions which hold that statutes banning discrimination based on "marital status" apply to anti-nepotism policies. See Thompson v. Bd. of Trustees, 192 Mont. 266, 627 P.2d 1229, 1231 (1981) ("But for the fact this plaintiff is married, he would still be working. The term `marital status' as a protected classification in the statutes was included to cover this type of unjustified discrimination."); Kraft, Inc. v. State, 284 N.W.2d 386, 387 (Minn. 1979) ("[A]n antinepotism employment rule denying full time employment to individuals married to persons already employed full time by the employer constitutes a discriminatory practice based on marital status within the meaning of the Minnesota Human Rights Act."); Washington Water Power Co. v. Washington State Human Rights Comm'n, 91 Wn.2d 62, 586 P.2d 1149, 1153 (1978) (agreeing with the Washington Human Rights Commission's conclusion that "whether or not it is intended as such, the discharge of an employee or the refusal to hire an applicant because his or her spouse works for the employer necessarily involves an examination of an employee's marital status and therefore is discrimination based upon such status."); River Bend Sch. Dist. v. Human Rights Comm'n, 232 Ill.App.3d 838, 173 Ill.Dec. 868, 597 N.E.2d 842, 846 (1992) (School District's anti-nepotism policy "is clearly triggered by a party's marital status and imposes a direct burden upon marriage. A person who remains single would not be affected by the rule.").
In attempting to divine the legislature's intent, the court places emphasis on the legislature's failure to discuss the alleged conflict between the Human Rights Act and anti-nepotism laws governing employment in state government. I am hesitant to draw inferences from the legislature's silence. See Public Defender Agency v. Superior Court, 534 P.2d 947, 952 (Alaska 1975) ("Legislative inaction may be evidence of intent, although it is not always a reliable guide."); Brecht v.
In my opinion, construing AS 18.80.220(a)(1) to apply to anti-nepotism policies gives effect to the legislature's intent. In enacting the Alaska Human Rights Act, the legislature found that discrimination based on marital status "is a matter of public concern and ... not only threatens the rights and privileges of the inhabitants of the state but also menaces the institutions of the state and threatens peace, order, health, safety, and general welfare of the state and its inhabitants." AS 18.80.200(a). The purpose of the Act is to prevent such discrimination. Id. at .200(b). The narrow interpretation of marital status adopted by the court runs counter to this purpose by forcing those subject to anti-nepotism rules to choose between employment and marriage. See Kraft, Inc., 284 N.W.2d at 388. ("Endorsing a narrow definition of marital status and uncritically upholding an employment policy such as respondent's could discourage similarly situated employees from marrying.... Such an employment policy would thus undermine the preferred status enjoyed by the institution of marriage.") A broad construction of the term marital status avoids this "Hobson's choice" and therefore furthers the purpose of the Act. See Alaska USA Fed. Credit Union v. Fridriksson, 642 P.2d 804, 806 (Alaska 1982) (quoting Wondzell v. Alaska Wood Products, Inc., 601 P.2d 584, 585 (Alaska 1979). "Alaska's civil rights statute should be broadly construed `to further the goal of eradication of discrimination.'").
The Alaska Human Rights Commission is charged with adopting "procedural and substantive regulations necessary to implement" the Alaska Human Rights Act. AS 18.80.050(a). While the court exercises its independent judgment on issues of statutory construction, the Commission's interpretation is entitled to "`some weight.'" Peninsula Marketing Ass'n v. State, 817 P.2d 917, 922 (Alaska 1991) (quoting State, Dep't of Revenue v. Alaska Pulp America, Inc., 674 P.2d 268, 274 (Alaska 1983)).
The Commission has defined discrimination based on marital status to include "unjustified adverse action taken against a person because that person is single, married, widowed or divorced, or because of that person's marriage or termination of marriage to another person." 6 AAC 30.990(a)(8) (emphasis added). In construing statutes or regulations, it is presumed that "every word, sentence, or provision ... [has] some purpose, force, and effect, and that no words or provisions are superfluous." Rydwell v. Anchorage Sch. Dist., 864 P.2d 526, 530-31 (Alaska 1993). The first portion of the Commission's
It is not the case, as the court asserts, that extending the protection of AS 18.80.220(a)(1) to cover the identity of one's spouse will necessarily "invalidat[e] any relevant anti-nepotism policies." Op. at 791. A distinction based on marital status, or on any other protected category, is allowed "when the reasonable demands of the position" require it. AS 18.80.220(a)(1). The Commission has established guidelines for enforcing this provision:
6 AAC 30.910(c). This procedure for proving "business necessity" comports with practices in other jurisdictions. See, e.g., River Bend Sch. Dist., 173 Ill.Dec. 868, 597 N.E.2d at 846 (placing the burden on the employer to show that one spouse was unable to effectively supervise another, and noting that the business necessity exception "is a narrow one."); Kraft, Inc., 284 N.W.2d at 388 ("[O]nly where a business necessity is compelling and overriding may an employer differentiate on the basis of marital status.... Mere business convenience is insufficient."). While the standard is exacting, it nevertheless allows for some exception to the strict anti-discrimination rule in AS 18.80.220(a)(1).
I would respond to the certified question as follows: AS 18.80.220(a)(1) prevents an employer from discriminating against an employee based on the identity of the employee's spouse, unless the employer can prove that the reasonable demands of the position require a distinction based on marital status.
Miller, 362 N.W.2d at 653-54 (footnote and citations omitted) (interpreting Mich. Comp. Laws. Ann. § 37.3303 (West 1996)). We agree that this is the fundamental purpose of anti-discrimination statutes.
To the extent the agency were promulgating a regulation which differs substantively from the clear language of the statute, it would be invalid. Powers v. State, Pub. Employees' Retirement Bd., 757 P.2d 65, 67 (Alaska 1988) ("regulations made by an agency which exceed its statutory authority are invalid").