Termination of an employee due to her “irresistible attraction”? Lawful.

The Iowa Supreme Court (yes Iowa, not Idaho – I do know the difference!) issued an interesting opinion on December 21, 2012 in the case of Nelson v. James H. Knight DDS P.C.  Although the opinion only applies directly to Iowa law, it is an interesting case, and illustrates the oddities of employment law in our country.  (For the record, this case may well have had the same outcome under Idaho law or federal law.)

Melissa Nelson was a twenty year-old dental hygienist, who was hired by Dr. Knight in 1999 to work at his dental clinic.  Over the next ten years, Nelson apparently did a great job, and Dr. Knight treated her with respect.  Toward the end of her employment, however, Dr. Knight started making comments to Nelson that her clothing was too tight or revealing.  The two also started texting each other about both professional and personal matters, although Nelson maintains her friendship with Dr. Knight was always platonic.  In late 2009, Dr. Knight’s wife saw the texts from Nelson and demanded that Dr. Knight terminate her employment, because she was a threat to the Knight’s marriage.

Ultimately, on January 4, 2010, Dr. Knight terminated Nelson’s employment.  He explained to Nelson’s husband that nothing had happened between them and that Nelson was the best assistant he had ever had.  However, Dr. Knight said he was worried he had become too attached to Nelson and he feared he would try to have an affair with Nelson if they continued to work together.  Dr. Knight paid Nelson one month’s severance and replaced her with another female (and apparently less enticing) hygienist.  In fact, all of Dr. Knight’s hygienists have been women.

Nelson sued, claiming Dr. Knight fired her on the basis of her sex — that he would not have fired her had she been male.  The trial court granted summary judgment to Dr. Knight and dismissed Nelson’s case, finding that Dr. Knight terminated Nelson not because of her sex, but because she “was a threat to the marriage of Dr. Knight.”  The Iowa Supreme Court examined the prior case law and ultimately sided with Dr. Knight.  The Court noted, ”

Title VII and the Iowa Civil Rights Act are not general fairness laws, and an employer does not violate them by treating an employee unfairly so long as the employer does not engage in discrimination based upon the employee’s protected status.”  Here, the Court found that Dr. Knight was motivated in his decision “entirely by individual feelings and emotions regarding a specific person” and the decision was not “gender-based, nor is it based on factors that might be a proxy for gender.”

If an employer repeatedly took adverse employment actions against persons of a particular gender because of alleged personal relationship issues, it might well be possible to infer that gender and not the relationship was a motivating factor.

The Court noted that, if there were evidence of sexual harassment, the case would be a different one entirely.  Here, however, there was no such evidence presented.  The Court found that it was not Nelson’s sex that led to the termination — it was the threat she posed to the marriage.  Although her sex was one aspect of that threat, the Court accepted the argument that her sex was “merely coincidental” to the actual reason for the termination.

The Court concluded by stating that it was not their job to determine whether Dr. Knight had treated Nelson unfairly.  The only question for the Court was whether the termination of her employment because of the Knights’ concerns about the threat Nelson posed to their marriage was unlawful gender discrimination.  The Court decided that it was not.

This theme of “unfair but not unlawful” is one that appears through the employment case law.  However, employers must still be wary when taking any employment action — particularly in circumstances such as these — because they are walking through a dangerous minefield.  Although the Court here sided with the employer (and indeed I think many courts would with this identical set of facts), with slightly different facts, I do not believe Dr. Knight would have been free from liability.

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