Iowa Court Gives Green Light to Dismiss Workers for Being too Attractive

Britney Buscaglia

Can an employer lawfully terminate an employee simply for being irresistible? According to a December 21, 2012 decision from the Iowa Supreme Court, the answer appears to be “yes.”

The Supreme Court upheld a lower court’s ruling, finding that an employment termination triggered by a dentist’s admitted sexual attraction to one of his dental assistants did not amount to unlawful sex discrimination in violation of the Iowa Civil Rights Act.

In 1999, Dr. James Knight hired 20-year-old Melissa Nelson, just after she obtained her community college degree. For ten-and-a-half years, Nelson worked for Dr. Knight without incident and Dr. Knight considered her a competent dental assistant.

However, over approximately the last 18 months of Nelson’s employment, Dr. Knight complained to her that her clothing was too tight, revealing and “distracting.” Nelson, however, denied that her clothing was too tight or inappropriate for the office.

In 2009, six months prior to her termination, Nelson and Dr. Knight began texting each other outside the workplace concerning both work and personal matters. On one occasion, Nelson allegedly made a statement regarding the infrequency of her sex life, to which Dr. Knight responded, “[T]hat’s like having a Lamborghini in the garage and never driving it.”

Later that year, Dr. Knight took his children to Colorado for Christmas vacation, while his wife, who was also an employee at the dental practice, remained at home. Dr. Knight’s wife discovered that he and Nelson were texting each other during that time. Upon Dr. Knight’s return, his wife confronted him and insisted that he fire Nelson.

On January 4, 2010, Dr. Knight informed Nelson he was letting her go. He advised she would receive a one-month severance pay and then read a prepared statement which included that their relationship “had become a detriment to Dr. Knight’s family and that for the best interests of both Dr. Knight and his family, and Nelson and her family, the two of them should not work together.”

After her dismissal, Nelson filed a civil rights complaint and received a “right to sue” letter from the Iowa Civil Rights Commission. On August 12, 2010, Nelson brought a lawsuit against Dr. Knight, alleging a single cause of action: that Dr. Knight discriminated against her on the basis of her sex. Specifically, Nelson contends she would not have been fired “but for” her gender. Nelson did not claim sexual harassment.

In Iowa, “an employer engages in unlawful sex discrimination when the employer takes adverse employment action against an employee and sex is a motivating factor in the employer’s decision.” Dr. Knight claimed he did not fire Nelson because of her gender. Indeed, he only employed women at his office. Rather, he stated she was let go because of the trajectory of their relationship and the threat it presented to his marriage.

The Supreme Court, finding in favor of Dr. Knight, held that “Nelson’s argument would allow any termination decision related to a consensual relationship to be challenged as a discriminatory action because the employee could argue the relationship would not have existed but for his or her gender.” In reaching its decision, the court relied upon a previous decision by the U.S. Court of Appeal for the Eighth Circuit that provided, “an employer does not engage in unlawful gender discrimination by discharging a female employee who is involved in a consensual relationship that has triggered personal jealousy.”

VERDICT: Defense
COURT: Iowa Supreme Court

Resources: Nelson v. Knight, 2012 Iowa Sup. LEXIS 111 (Iowa 2012)

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