Iowa Supreme Court rules against woman fired for being ‘irresistible’ to married boss

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by Eric Pearson

The Iowa Supreme Court has just affirmed its earlier decision preventing a woman who was subject to sexual discrimination from suing her former employer. In the case of Nelson v. James H. Knight, DDA, former dental assistant Melissa Nelson sued her former employer after she was fired for allegedly being too “irresistible” to her married boss. The trial court granted summary judgment in favor of the employer, dentist James Knight, and Nelson appealed.

According to the lawsuit, Dr. Knight, married with children, had made sexually suggestive comments to Nelson on a number of occasions. He had also warned her several times that her appearance aroused him, and even asked her to wear a long lab coat to help him cope with his attraction to her. While the two texted about personal matters, Nelson testified that she viewed Dr. Knight as a fried and father figure and nothing more.

Although Nelson had never flirted with her boss and nothing untoward had ever occurred between them, Dr. Knight’s wife became concerned about the relationship between Nelson and her husband. Eventually, Mrs. Knight insisted that her husband fire Nelson, believing she was a threat to their marriage. For his part, Dr. Knight admitted that Nelson was an excellent employee, having worked for him for more than ten years. Nonetheless, he stated that he felt compelled to fire her because of his wife’s demands and because he “feared that he would try to have an affair with her down the road if he did not fire her.” Despite her exemplary job performance and the admission that she never did anything inappropriate, Dr. Knight fired Nelson and paid her a mere one month’s severance after more than ten years of employment.

Remarkably, the Iowa trial court granted summary judgment in favor of Dr. Knight and threw the case out of court. According to the trial court, the firing did not constitute sexual discrimination because it was based not on gender but on the specific relationship between Dr. Knight and Nelson and the perceived threat to his marriage that relationship caused. The Iowa Supreme Court agreed, holding that a male employer does not engage in unlawful gender discrimination by terminating a female employee with whom he is involved in a consensual relationship that has triggered personal jealousy on the part of the employer’s spouse.

The Iowa Supreme Court’s ruling is a serious blow to anti-discrimination laws and to the employment rights of women. The decision allowed a male employer to fire a long-term, capable employee solely because he was afraid he would not be able to resist her allure and would eventually try to have an affair with her. Of course, if the employer had retained Nelson and then attempted to have an affair with her, she could unquestionably have sued him for sexual harassment and/or sexual discrimination. But by firing Nelson before he could act on his impulses, Dr. Knight was able to escape liability. This absurd result clearly weakens federal and state anti-discrimination laws by allowing a male employer to fire a female employee solely because he is sexually attracted to her.

Another absurd element of the Iowa Supreme Court’s ruling is that it relied on the fact that Dr. Knight’s wife had essentially ordered him to fire Nelson, holding that “[t]here is no genuine issue of material fact that the reason for Nelson’s firing was Jeanne Knight’s demand that she be fired, which was based in turn upon Jeanne Knight’s perception that the relationship between Dr. Knight and Nelson was a threat to the marriage.” Of course, a spouse’s “orders,” no matter how forceful, cannot turn an illegal act of discrimination into a legal act of self-preservation. While Dr. Knight may have terminated Nelson to placate his wife and save his marriage, that does not insulate him from the reach of anti-discrimination laws; or at least, it did not until the Iowa Supreme Court‘s recent ruling.

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If you or a friend or loved one has been the victim of discrimination – whether on the basis of gender, race or sexual orientation – you need to speak to a lawyer about your potential legal rights. You need an experienced and knowledgeable law firm that can guide you through the legal process and obtain maximum compensation on your behalf. Our lawyers have successfully represented numerous plaintiffs who have suffered workplace discrimination.

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Michael Heygood, James Craig Orr, Jr. and Eric Pearson were selected to the Super Lawyers List, a Thomson Reuters publication, for the years 2003 through 2013.