• Terminating an Employee for Being an "Irresistible Attraction" - The Iowa Supreme Court Says This Is Not Discriminatory
  • March 8, 2013
  • Law Firm: Troutman Sanders LLP - Atlanta Office
  • Is it lawful to terminate a female employee because the boss, and the boss’ wife, are worried that the boss would try to have an affair with the employee? In a case that has drawn national attention, the all-male Iowa Supreme Court, in Nelson v. James H. Knight, DDS, P.C., unanimously ruled that such a termination did not constitute unlawful discrimination based on the employee’s gender, but rather was permissible because the boss viewed the employee as an "irresistible attraction."

    The Facts

    Melissa Nelson worked as a dental assistant in Dr. Knight’s dental office for over 10 years. Toward the end of her employment, however, Dr. Knight started paying attention to Ms. Nelson’s clothing and sometimes asked her to put on a lab coat because he didn’t think it was good for him to see her wearing things that accentuated her body. He also commented to Ms. Nelson that if she "saw his pants bulging," she would know that her clothing was too revealing. While both Dr. Knight and Ms. Nelson are married with children, this didn’t stop Dr. Knight from also sending her inappropriate text messages. Indeed, Dr. Knight texted Ms. Nelson to ask how often she experienced an orgasm (which Ms. Nelson never answered) and commented about her infrequent sex life by saying, "that’s like having a Lamborghini in the garage and never driving it." Ms. Nelson never complained about Dr. Knight’s conduct and never asked him to stop sending her inappropriate texts, but she also never reciprocated with flirtatious behavior or sexual innuendo of her own.

    Instead, Dr. Knight’s wife, who also was an employee in the dental practice, discovered the text messages and demanded that Dr. Knight terminate Ms. Nelson’s employment because "she was a big threat to our marriage." The Knights consulted their senior pastor at church, who agreed with the decision. Dr. Knight, along with another pastor from his Church, subsequently called Ms. Nelson into his office and informed her that he was firing her because their relationship was a detriment to his marriage and family, and they should not work together. Ms. Nelson cried and stated that she loved her job. And when she told her husband about being fired, Mr. Nelson met with Dr. Knight and the pastor that same evening. At that meeting, Dr. Knight explained that Ms. Nelson had done nothing wrong, that she was the best dental assistant he ever had, but that he feared he would try to have an affair with her down the road if he did not fire her.

    Ms. Nelson subsequently filed a lawsuit alleging gender discrimination, arguing that she would not have been terminated if she was male. According to Ms. Nelson’s attorney, Ms. Nelson did not allege sexual harassment because Dr. Knight’s conduct may not have risen to that level and didn’t particularly offend Ms. Nelson.

    The Iowa Supreme Court’s Decision

    According to the Iowa Supreme Court, previous case law had already established that it is not unlawful gender discrimination to fire a female employee who is involved in a consensual sexual relationship if the female employee has triggered personal jealousy. In those cases, courts had held that the employee was terminated due to the consequences of her own conduct with the employer, and not due to her gender. In the Nelson case, however, the Court felt it was necessary to answer the question: "Whether an employee who has not engaged in flirtatious conduct may be lawfully terminated simply because the boss views the employee as an irresistible attraction?"

    Ultimately, the Iowa Supreme Court held that Ms. Nelson’s termination was not unlawful discrimination. The Court found that this case did not turn on the gender of Ms. Nelson, but was instead "driven entirely by individual feelings and emotions regarding a specific person." The Court noted that Dr. Knight hired a female replacement for Ms. Nelson and did not terminate other female employees. Further, according to the Court, the termination was because Ms. Knight, unfairly or not, viewed Ms. Nelson as a threat to her marriage - and not because of Ms. Nelson’s gender.

    The Aftermath

    Following the Iowa Supreme Court’s decision, the national press immediately reacted and the headlines ran the gamut - from "You’re Irresistible. You’re Fired!" and "All Male Court: Bosses Can Fire Hot Workers For Being ‘Irresistible’" to "It’s Legal To Fire Employee for Being Irresistibly Sexy" and "Fired For Being Too Hot."

    An attorney for Dr. Knight said the decision was "a victory for family values" because it was permissible to fire Ms. Nelson in the interests of saving a marriage. But Ms. Nelson’s attorney responded that Iowa’s all-male court (one of only a handful in the nation) "sent a message to Iowa women that they don’t think men can be held responsible for their sexual desires and that Iowa women are the ones who have to monitor and control their bosses’ sexual desires." Ultimately, the line between unlawful discrimination and lawful favoritism - or whether an employment decision is based on protecting your marriage or the gender of an employee - can be a difficult one to draw. As one commentator wisely noted, employers who face a similar scenario should consult with an employment lawyer, and not just their pastor. At a minimum, handling a situation as Dr. Knight did - and terminating an employee who is "simply irresistible" - will likely lead to messy litigation and horrible press. At worst, other courts might well reach different conclusions or leave the question of the legality of this termination in the hands of a jury. Those are both situations any employer would be wise to try to avoid.