As 2012 came to a close, the Iowa Supreme Court ensured that it would go out with a bang when they ruled in favor of an employer who fired his female employee for being too attractive. The details of the case stated that Melissa Nelson worked for employer Dr. James Knight as a dental assistant for approximately ten years. During this time Nelson became a valuable employee in that her performance was high. Both Nelson and Knight agreed that they had a positive working-relationship.
However, over the last year and a half that Nelson worked for Knight, he complained that Nelson’s clothes were too tight, which he found distracting. On occasion he asked Nelson to put her lab coat on. During testimony, Knight testified that he made the statement that “I don’t think it’s good for me to see her wearing things that accentuate her body.” Nelson denied that her clothing was tight or inappropriate. For the last six months of Nelson’s employment, she and Knight sent text messages to one another outside the workplace. However, the texts were either work-related or personal updates about children or other topics that were not sexual in nature.
Nelson denied ever engaging in sexual conversation or pursuing a sexual relationship with Knight. On the other hand, Knight acknowledged making the following comments: “If she saw his pants bulging, she would know her clothing was too revealing.” “The shirt she had worn that day was too tight.” ” It was a good thing Nelson did not wear tight pants too because then he would get it coming and going.” On another occasion Knight sent a text to Nelson to ask how often she experienced an orgasm.
Throughout the case it was made clear that Nelson did not have any complains regarding sexual harassment, nor did she ask Knight to stop texting her or that the behavior made her uncomfortable. However, after Knight’s wife, also an employee at the clinic, found out that he and Nelson were sending texts to one another, she decided Nelson was a “big threat to [their] marriage.” She demanded that Knight fire Nelson. When Nelson was terminated, Knight told her that she had done nothing wrong, but that he was becoming too “personally attached” to her and he was afraid that in the future he would pursue an affair with her. In a summary judgment the court ruled that “in part, “Ms. Nelson was fired not because of her gender but because she was a threat to the marriage of Dr. Knight.”
Upon appeal, the Iowa Supreme Court reviewed the matter according to Title VII because of Nelson’s claim that she would not have been terminated except “but for” her gender. In her argument she presents three points 1) The plaintiff’s sex is implicated by the very nature of the reason for termination. 2) That without a requirement for misconduct, this becomes a means of executing adverse actions by claiming “my spouse thought I was attracted to them.” 3) If Knight would have been liable for sexually harassing her, “he should not be allowed to avoid liability for terminating her out of fear that he was going to harass her.” In response, the court clarified that there is a distinction between a one-off employment decision based on a personal relationship regardless of whether opposite gender would have prevented the relationship, and an employment decision based upon gender itself. The court found that this case fell in to the first category in that Knight’s decision was based solely on his specific relationship with Nelson. Current Federal caselaw states that an adverse action stemming from a consensual sexual relationship is not actionable under Title VII if an element of sexual harassment is not present. Finally, the court noted that had Knight fired several female employees because of his attraction or that his wife demanded termination of several employees, this case may have taken a different turn.
This case presents an interesting position for employers to consider. On its face this case seems to immediately be a violation of Title VII; however, further review shows that Knight’s decision to terminate was lawful based on the specific relationship with Nelson. Had there been multiple employees adversely impacted under the same reason, or if Nelson had claimed some element of sexual harassment, it’s entirely possible the court may have ruled in her favor. As it stands; however, this matter is the specific consequence of a consensual relationship and not discrimination.