Never has a Iowa Supreme Court’s ruling in an employment dispute generated such strong reaction, not only locally, but internationally.   The case, of course, is Nelson v. Knight, the December 21, 2012 ruling involving the Fort Dodge dentist who was irresistibly attracted to one of his dental assistants. Dr. Knight’s wife, who also worked in his practice, found text messages between the two of them when he left his phone at home.   Most of the texting was benign, but the wife was concerned that if Dr. Knight continued to work with this particular assistant it could lead to a romantic relationship. She demanded the assistant be terminated for the sake of the marriage. Dr. Knight agreed. 

The dental assistant, Melissa Nelson, sued, alleging her firing was illegal sex discrimination under the Iowa Civil Rights Act.    Notably, she did not claim sexual harassment. There was no sexual relationship, no demands for sex, no offensive working environment.   There was no claim Dr. Knight favored male employees compared to female employees. So how did Dr. Knight discriminate against her?  Ms. Nelson’s theory was that Dr. Knight’s attraction to her was in and of itself a form of unlawful sex discrimination.   In other words, if she had been male, Dr. Knight would not have perceived Nelson as a threat to his marriage, and she would not have been fired.

While acknowledging that Nelson’s argument warranted serious consideration, the Iowa Supreme Court ultimately concluded Dr. Knight was not guilty of sex discrimination.   The law recognizes a distinction between an isolated employment decision based upon a particular relationship (or potential relationship), and a decision based upon gender per se, even if the relationship would not have existed if the employee was a hypothetical male. In other words, the Court reasoned, Dr. Knight’s decision to terminate Ms. Nelson was not based upon her gender as such, but was driven completely by his individual feelings regarding a specific person.     There was no evidence Dr. Knight was biased against female employees generally.

This opinion unleashed a firestorm of commentary, most of it critical.    It is notable, however, that virtually all the criticism of the Court’s ruling is based upon the unfairness of the result, and ignores the Court’s extensive discussion of applicable precedent and how it applied to the facts of this particular case.   It is true that Ms. Nelson worked for this dentist a long time, and did nothing wrong. It was not the employee’s fault her boss did not exercise self control such that his wife could not trust him. Even the Iowa Supreme Court acknowledged the termination was unfair (and chided the dentist for giving his fired assistant “a rather ungenerous one month’s severance”). 

I am certainly not defending Dr. Knight here. His conduct caused harm to his own family and his employee, and he put himself in the position of having to choose one over the other.   Unfortunately, Ms. Nelson is the person out of a job. But, the anti-discrimination laws don’t prohibit unfair decisions; or harsh ones; or those based upon an employee’s attractiveness or lack thereof, whether male or female.   If there is no harassment, no coercion, and no evidence of bias against female employees, there is no unlawful discrimination.     It is also important to note that, while this ruling obviously touched some sensitive cultural nerves, it is not a decision that is likely to have significant impact on sex discrimination litigation.    The Court expressly limited its ruling to the unique circumstances that existed in this particular situation.   This case involved a family business owner’s decision to favor his wife’s request over the interests of a particular female employee.   While perhaps unfair, it was not unreasonable for the Court to conclude the Iowa Civil Rights Act does not make such a decision unlawful. 

For some other thoughtful commentary on this decision, I recommend the following:

Rush, Nigut, at Rush on Business;

Thomas, Crane, San Antonio Employment Law Blog

Eric Meyer, at Employer Handbook Blog

Fox Rothchild’s California Employment Law