A dentist acted legally when he fired an assistant that he found attractive simply because he and his wife viewed the woman as a threat to their marriage, the all-male Iowa Supreme Court ruled Friday.
The court ruled 7-0 that bosses can fire employees they see as an “irresistible attraction,” even if the employees have not engaged in flirtatious behavior or otherwise done anything wrong. Such firings may be unfair, but they are not unlawful discrimination under the Iowa Civil Rights Act because they are motivated by feelings and emotions, not gender, Justice Edward Mansfield wrote.
An attorney for Fort Dodge dentist James Knight said the decision, the first of its kind in Iowa, is a victory for family values because Knight fired Melissa Nelson in the interest of saving his marriage, not because she was a woman.
Nelson, 32, worked for Knight for 10 years, and he considered her a stellar worker. But in the final months of her employment, he complained that her tight clothing was distracting, once telling her that if his pants were bulging that was a sign her clothes were too revealing, according to the opinion.
He also once allegedly remarked about her infrequent sex life by saying, “that’s like having a Lamborghini in the garage and never driving it.”
Knight and Nelson – both married with children – started exchanging text messages, mostly about personal matters, such as their families. Knight’s wife, who also worked in the dental office, found out about the messages and demanded Nelson be fired. The Knights consulted with their pastor, who agreed that terminating Nelson was appropriate.
Knight fired Nelson and gave her one month’s severance. He later told Nelson’s husband that he worried he was getting too personally attached and feared he would eventually try to start an affair with her.
Nelson filed a lawsuit alleging gender discrimination, arguing she would not have been terminated if she was male. She did not allege sexual harassment because Knight’s conduct may not have risen to that level and didn’t particularly offend her.
Knight argued Nelson was fired not because of her gender, but because her continued employment threatened his marriage. A district judge agreed, dismissing the case before trial, and the high court upheld that ruling.
Mansfield noted that Knight had an all-female workforce and Nelson was replaced by a woman.
He said the decision was in line with state and federal court rulings that found workers can be fired for relationships that cause jealousy and tension within a business owner’s family. One such case from the 8th Circuit Court of Appeals upheld a business owner’s firing of a valued employee who was seen by his wife as a threat to their marriage. In that case, the fired employee had engaged in flirtatious conduct.
Mansfield said allowing Nelson’s lawsuit would stretch the definition of discrimination to allow anyone fired over a relationship to file a claim arguing they would not have been fired but for their gender.