In the salacious realm of sex discrimination law, the Iowa Supreme Court recently rendered an opinion that just might contend for the best blog fodder of 2013. Whether the decision in Nelson v. James H. Knight, DDS, P.C. will have any ripples in equal employment opportunity law outside Iowa remains to be seen, but it is surely thought provoking.
Melissa Nelson, a dental assistant in Fort Dodge, Iowa, worked alongside Dr. James Knight, a dentist, for 10 years, starting not long after she received her certification from a local community college at age 20. Nelson and Knight, who were both married, developed a close working relationship over the years, and it seems that, at a minimum, Nelson had a closer relationship with Knight than other employees did. Knight thought of Nelson as a good employee, and Nelson generally thought that Knight treated her respectfully.
Over the last year and a half of her employment, Knight complained to Nelson that her clothing was too tight, revealing and “distracting.” He often asked her to put on a lab coat, apparently to conceal her figure, which she did. Nelson denied that her clothes were tight fitting.
During the last six months of her employment, Nelson and Knight began texting each other. On one occasion where Knight again said that Nelson’s clothing was too tight, and Nelson texted that she did not think Knight was being fair, Knight responded that it was a good thing her pants were not also tight, because then he “would get it coming and going.” On another occasion, in response to Nelson’s statement that her sexual encounters with her husband were infrequent, Knight commented that such behavior was akin to “having a Lamborghini in the garage and never driving it.”
Knight’s wife discovered this relationship and texting, and apparently insisted that Nelson be terminated because she was a threat to the Knights’ marriage.
The Lawsuit and the Iowa Supreme Court’s Decision
Nelson later sued under Iowa’s law prohibiting sex discrimination. She did not claim sexual harassment – which was surely a strategic blunder. Instead, she claimed that she had been terminated because of her gender, i.e., she would not have been terminated if she were a man. The Court disagreed, holding that she was terminated because of jealousy over a consensual relationship, which it viewed as “an isolated employment decision based on personal relations” versus “a decision based on gender itself.”
Breaking It Down
It is relatively easy to armchair quarterback this and say that the Iowa Supreme Court and Nelson’s lawyers botched this. Skeptics will argue that Knight would not have made those comments and his wife would not have been threatened if Nelson was a male, nor would he apply the same attractiveness standards to a male employee. And it certainly defies logic why, under these circumstances, Nelson would not bring a hostile environment sexual harassment claim given Knight’s seeming attraction to Nelson.
All of this said, the Court’s opinion, though unpalatable, is legally defensible. Anti-discrimination laws, including those prohibiting gender discrimination, are not fairness or civility laws, as courts have often observed. There is no doubt that Knight’s firing of Nelson just smells bad—he essentially terminated an employee because he couldn’t control his own base instincts, because his jealous wife forced his hand, or both. But finding otherwise would have required the Court to wade into the dynamics of consensual workplace relationships. The Court viewed this as a slippery slope that it was not required to, and would not, venture onto.
Having said that, this case does seem like a bit of an outlier. First, as mentioned above, Nelson inexplicably did not bring a sexual harassment/hostile work environment claim and the court noted that it would not opine as to the result had it been brought. Second, the relationship between Knight and Nelson was sexually charged in a somewhat consensual way, which would distinguish this from other cases where a male supervisor seemingly cannot resist an attractive female employee. Third, and perhaps most significantly, it is unlikely that other courts, faced with this same scenario, would grant summary judgment on a case where a jealous wife forces her husband to fire a female employee who he cannot resist. To be sure, some other courts have relied on the same fine distinctions as did the Iowa Supreme Court here, but it is not hard to see other courts being critical of this case in the future.