The perils of this predicament are amply demonstrated in a recent ruling by the Supreme Court of Iowa.
The all-male Court ruled that a dentist did not violate sex discrimination laws when he fired his long-time dental assistant because he (and his wife) was afraid he would have an affair with her.
The Court upheld a lower court’s grant of summary judgment in the case of Nelson v. Knight, No. 11–1857 (Dec. 21, 2012). This means the Court concluded there was absolutely no way a jury could decide against Dentist James H. Knight and hold in favor of his assistant, Melissa Nelson. Therefore, the case was dismissed before trial.
Knight said he fired Nelson, who had worked for him for ten years, after his wife insisted that Nelson had to go. He gave Nelson one month’s severance.
Knight admits that on several occasions he asked Nelson to put on a lab coat because her clothing was too tight, revealing and “distracting.” Nelson denied that her clothing was tight or in any way inappropriate and said she complained to Knight at one point that his criticism was unfair.
Nelson also recalls that Knight once texted her to ask how often she experienced an orgasm. Nelson did not answer the text. The Court found it significant that Nelson did not remember ever telling Knight not to text her or telling him that she was offended.
When Knight’s wife found out that her husband and Nelson had been texting each other, she confronted her husband and demanded that he terminate Nelson’s employment. The Court finds it significant that Knight and his wife consulted with the senior pastor of their church, who agreed with the decision.
After the firing, Knight told Nelson’s husband that nothing was going on but that he feared he would try to have an affair with her down the road if he did not fire her.
Nelson charged that Knight had discriminated against her on the basis of sex in violation of the Iowa Civil Rights Act. She contended that she would not have been fired if she were male. Nelson did not raise the issue of sexual harassment.
The Court states in its decision that the question to be decided was “whether an employee who has not engaged in flirtatious conduct may be lawfully terminated simply because the boss views the employee as an irresistible attraction.” In this case, the Court held that Knight’s decision was driven by individual feelings and emotions regarding a specific person. The Court concluded Knight’s decision was not gender-based or based on factors that might be a proxy for gender.
The Court states that an employer does not violate sex discrimination laws by ” treating an employee unfairly so long as the employer does not engage in discrimination based upon the employee’s protected status.”
The Court did concede that it might be possible to infer that gender was an issue if an employer repeatedly took adverse employment actions against persons of a particular gender because of alleged personal relationship issues.
So if Knight repeatedly fires future assistants because he thinks he might want to have an affair with them, or if Knights’ wife demands that he fire future assistants because she thinks he might want to have an affair with them, presumably a Court could find discrimination on the basis of sex.
Meanwhile, Melissa Nelson is unemployed, with one month’s severance.
This may not come as a surprise to some readers but, according to the Court’s web site, there are no women justices on the Iowa Supreme Court. The seven justices are Chief Justice Mark S. Cady, David S. Wiggins, Daryl L. Hecht, Brent R. Appel, Thomas D. Waterman, Edward Mansfield and Bruce Zager. Justice Mansfield wrote the opinion.