Firing Employee Due to Concerns of Employer’s Wife is Not Unlawful Gender Discrimination, According to Iowa Supreme Court

In a decision that has already created a firestorm of controversy, the Iowa Supreme Court ruled that a dentist did not unlawfully discriminate against an employee based on her gender when he fired her because of his attraction to her. The court acknowledged in Nelson v. James H. Knight, DDS, P.C., No. 11-1857 (Iowa, Dec. 21, 2012), that the employer’s actions were unfair, but concluded that they were not motivated by the employee’s gender. Concerns over the employer’s marriage, the court found, was the primary reason for the firing. The court held that this was lawful even though the employee had done nothing wrong, but it also noted the potential for this decision to enable future employers to make similar claims in an attempt to justify otherwise unlawful firings.

The plaintiff, Melissa Nelson, began working for Dr. James Knight’s dental practice in 1999, when she was twenty years old and just out of school. She worked for him for ten-and-a-half years as a dental assistant. Both were married and had children by 2009, and Nelson testified that she viewed Knight as a “friend and father figure.” Slip op. at 3. Knight reportedly began to complain to Nelson during the last year and a half of her employment that her attire was inappropriate for the workplace, although Nelson denied wearing clothing that was too tight or otherwise inappropriate.

During the last six months of her employment, the two began communicating via text message. Some of the texts discussed matters of a sexual nature, but none indicated a sexual relationship between the two. Nelson said that she was not uncomfortable with the correspondence, although some of Knight’s texts could be described as explicit, such as a reference to bulging pants caused by her revealing clothing. Knight’s wife, who also worked for his practice, discovered their text correspondence in late 2009, and complained to him about it, calling it a “big threat to [their] marriage.” Id. at 4. In consultation with the couple’s pastor, Knight decided it was best to fire Nelson. He informed her of her termination on January 4, 2010, by reading a prepared statement with another pastor present. Knight acknowledged that Nelson had done nothing wrong, and that she was his best dental assistant. He later hired another woman to replace Nelson, and has always employed female dental assistants.

Nelson sued Knight, both individually and in his corporate capacity, alleging gender discrimination in violation of the Iowa Civil Rights Act (ICRA). She did not allege sexual harassment. The trial court granted summary judgment to Knight, finding that the firing was not motivated by Nelson’s gender, but by concerns over his marriage.

On appeal, Nelson argued that she would not have been fired but for her gender. The Iowa Supreme Court had difficulty finding relevant precedent cases, but ultimately affirmed the trial court’s ruling. An Eighth Circuit case, Tenge v. Phillips Modern Ag Co., 446 F.3d 903, 908 (8th Cir. 2006), held that “sexual favoritism,” or favoring an employee of the opposite sex based on a “consensual relationship with the boss” does not violate Title VII of the Civil Rights Act. Nelson’s case is distinguishable, the Iowa court noted, because unlike the plaintiff in Tenge she did nothing to further an inappropriate relationship with “the boss.” It nevertheless found that Knight did not unlawfully discriminate based on Nelson’s gender.

If you need to speak to an employment law attorney in New Jersey or New York, contact the Resnick Law Group at 973-781-1204 or (646) 867-7997.

More Blog Posts:

New Jersey Passes Law Against Gender Discrimination, The New Jersey Employment Law Firm Blog, November 2, 2012
New Jersey Gender Discrimination Target of New Pay Parity Law, The New Jersey Employment Law Firm Blog, October 17, 2012
Too Sexy for this Job?… Gender Discrimination in the Workplace, The New Jersey Employment Law Firm Blog, July 9, 2012

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