Following up on my post on the subject, I had the opportunity to speak with Colin O’Keefe of LXBN regarding Nelson v. Knight, the case where the Iowa Supreme Court ruled that a dentist was not wrong in firing his assistant for being irresistible. In the interview, I explain the basics of the case and why I think the Court erred in its ruling.
The Iowa Supreme Court ruled in favor of a dentist who fired a dental assistant because she was too attractive. The dentist said he and his wife found the assistant to be a threat to their marriage. Basing its decision on the Iowa Civil Rights Act, the high court said the termination was justified because it was based on emotions, not gender. The employer’s lawyer said this was a victory for family values, because the assistant was terminated to save his marriage. Dr. James Knight fired Melissa Nelson, a ten year employee, after she started wearing clothing that was too tight.
After firing Ms. Nelson, Dr. Knight replaced her with another female worker. His workforce is all female. See Mother Jones report. Over the years, Dr. Knight told Ms. Nelson her attire was distracting and would ask her to wear a lab coat. Ms. Nelson denied her clothing was tight or inappropriate.
During the last six months of her employment, the doctor and the assistant texted each other regarding their respective families. One or two texts were somewhat intimate, but most were innocuous. The doctor’ wife discovered the texts and demanded that the doctor fire Ms. Nelson. They met with their pastor and he agreed. Dr. Knight met with Ms. Nelson with his pastor present. He fired the long-time assistant saying she had become a "detriment" to his family.
Ms. Nelson’s husband called Dr. Knight. With the pastor present, they spoke. The dentist said Ms. Nelson was the best assistant he had ever had. But, they were getting too close personally.
Ms. Nelson claimed she was fired because of her gender. She did not allege Dr. Knight had harassed her. The Iowa Supreme Court relied on state and federal cases that found terminations based on jealousy were not due to gender. When an employer fires an employee with whom he has had an affair and the wife becomes jealous, those decisions find the termination to not violate the pertinent discrimination statute. That is, treating one gender better than another is permissible when the relationship is due a concensual relationship with the boss. See Iowa Supreme Court decision. In these prior decisions, Title VII is not involved because the termination is based on sexual conduct, not on gender, said the Iowa Supreme Court
But, in this case, the female employee did not engage in flirtatious behavior. The plaintiff argues rightly that she was targeted simply because of her gender. In strained reasoning the court found the employer, Dr. Knight, to have been motivated by his wife’s jealousy, not by Ms. Nelson’s gender. The court was troubled by the difficult choice. On the one hand, the employer could, based on this decision, terminate several female employees based on the possibility he might seek an affair in the future. But, on the other hand, any termination decision based on a consensual relationship could be challenged because the affair could not happen but for the person’s gender.
The Iowa high court noted that Ms. Nelson applied some gender stereotyping when she questioned why Ms. Nelson would not be anxious to get home after work to be with her husband and children. The assistant would sometimes stay at the office after work had ended. But, said the court, the plaintiff did not allege gender stereotyping.
This is a difficult call for all courts. The caselaw is clear that in a consensual relationship, both employees should be treated the same. If the female worker is fired, then the male manager should also be terminated. But, how can the boss be fired? So, instead, the courts engage in strained reasoning about what truly motivated the boss when he fired the female worker. This decision arose after the employer moved for summary judgment. The court should have simply found sufficient factual issue to allow Ms. Nelson’ claim to go to a jury. Doubts about motivation should always be resolved by a jury.