The Iowa Supreme Court decision in Nelson v. James H. Knight DDS, P.C., et al, filed December 21, 2012, has drawn national attention for the holding that the termination of Nelson’s employment was not in violation of the Iowa Civil Rights Act’s prohibition of discrimination based on sex.
Nelson worked for Knight’s dental office for over ten years, along with an all female staff other than Dr. Knight. In the last year and a half of her employment, Dr. Knight complained that her clothing was too tight, revealing and “distracting”. Dr. Knight’s wife, Jeanne, also an employee of the dental practice, complained that Nelson flirted with Dr. Knight, was cold toward her, criticized another dental assistant, and would hang around after work when just Dr. Knight was there while everyone else went home. While Nelson indicated that he made a comment that “if she saw his pants bulging, she would know her clothing was too revealing” and another comment on her sex life, Nelson did not complain or tell him that she was offended.
Nelson and Dr. Knight began texting each other during the last six months of her employment, including while he was on a vacation with his children, and his wife stayed at home. Jeanne Knight learned of the texting, confronted her husband, and demanded that he terminate Nelson’s employment because “she was a big threat to our marriage.” They consulted with their pastor, who agreed. Dr. Nelson then terminated Nelson’s employment.
Nelson filed suit, alleging in a single count, that in terminating her employment, Dr. Knight “discriminated against her on the basis of sex”. She did not allege that sexual harassment had occurred during her employment. The District Court ruled in favor of Dr. Knight on summary judgment. On appeal, the Iowa Supreme Court affirmed, noting that the Iowa Civil Rights Act, specifically Iowa Code §216.6(1)(a) makes it unlawful to discharge or otherwise discriminate against an employee because of the employee’s sex. Generally, it is unlawful sex discrimination for an employer to terminate an employee if sex is a motivating factor in the employer’s decision. Nelson claimed that she would not have been terminated “but for” her sex.
The Iowa Supreme Court reviewed cases from other courts across the United States, including a recent Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals case, which found that “sexual favoritism”, where one employee is treated more favorably than members of the opposite sex because of a consensual relationship with the boss, does not violate Title VII (the corresponding federal law prohibiting sex discrimination). Tenge v. Phillips Modern Ag Co., 446 F. 3d 903 (8th Cir. 2006). The Eight Circuit noted that under such circumstances, any benefits were based on the sexual conduct, and not the gender of the employee. Similar cases were cited for the proposition that unfavorable treatment based on consensual sexual conduct did not violate Title VII. See Platner v. Cash & Thomas Contractors, Inc., 908 F.2d 902 (11th Cir. 1990)(employee terminated for being a perceived threat to the marriage of the owner’s son when son’s wife became jealous). See also Keen v. Regional Emergency Med. Servs. of Ga., Inc., (M.D. Ga., No. 7:11 - cv 00106, Oct. 15, 2012) (no retaliation found for conduct of employee's wife who took action against Plaintiff because Plaintiff had an affair with her husband, although employer may be subject to claims on other grounds).
In affirming summary judgment for Dr. Knight, the Iowa Supreme Court noted that there is a distinction between an isolated employment based on personal relations and a decision based on gender itself. The Court found that this case did not turn on the gender of Nelson, but on the personal relationship that Dr. Knight had with Nelson. He hired a female replacement for her and did not terminate other female employees, the termination was not based on her failure to conform with any particular gender stereotype such as appearance or manner of behavior, and there was no harassment or hostile environment. As the termination was based solely due to the jealousy and demand of Dr. Nelson’s wife, the Iowa Supreme Court found that there was no actionable sex discrimination.
What does this mean for you as a business owner, manager or employee?
Remember that comments may live in people’s memories for a long time, and be quoted, to your embarrassment, in public forums. Keep all comments in the workplace professional, regardless of the size of the workplace or familiarity with co-workers.
Remember that in the employment setting, everyone has a role. Whether you are an employer, employee, or co-worker, keep the relationships professional - particularly if there are family members or others who may be jealous or offended.
Take a hint - if someone comments that your clothing, language, or behavior is questionable, clarify the workplace rules and opt for the most professional appearance and behavior - immediately. If you are in charge - make your expectations and requirements clear and consistent even if the conversation about them may seem uncomfortable.
Beware of other factors. This case was a single issue, without other facts that may have given rise to claims of harassment or retaliation. Another case, with other facts, may result in a claim that is not dismissed.