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“Unfair Termination” for Being “An Irresistible Attraction” to Her Boss Does Not Violate the Iowa Civil Rights Act

On January 7, 2013 by Schnader in Labor and Employment

By Rebecca Lacher

The Iowa Supreme Court has stirred up a flurry of media attention with its recent holding that “an employee who has not engaged in flirtatious conduct may be lawfully terminated simply because the boss views the employee as an irresistible attraction.”

In Nelson v. Knight, No. 11–1857, Dr. Knight, a dentist, fired Nelson, his dental hygienist of more than 10 years, because his wife saw her as “a big threat to [their] marriage.” He conceded that she “had not done anything wrong or inappropriate and that she was the best dental assistant he ever had.”  He told Nelson’s husband that he fired Nelson because “he feared he would try to have an affair with her down the road if he did not fire her.”

Iowa is an employment-at-will state where an employee may be fired “at any time for any lawful reason.”  Lockhart v. Cedar Rapids Community Sch. Dist., 577 N.W.2d 845, 846 (Iowa 1998).

The Nelson Court held that a decision “driven entirely by individual feelings and emotions regarding a specific person … is not gender-based, nor is it based on factors that might be a proxy for gender.”  The court observed that the goal of the Iowa civil rights law is to ensure equal treatment of employees regardless of sex, and concluded “Dr. Knight’s unfair decision to terminate Nelson (while paying her a rather ungenerous one month’s severance) does not jeopardize that goal. This is illustrated by the fact that Dr. Knight hired a female replacement for Nelson.”

There is a warning here – you may get a free pass (pardon the “irresistible” pun) on your first sexually attractive-based firing, but if you make a habit of it and repeatedly take adverse actions against employees of a particular gender “because of alleged personal relationship issues, it might well be possible to infer that gender and not the relationship was a motivating factor.”

Mrs. Nelson might have fared better had she lived in a jurisdiction barring discrimination based on “personal appearance,” such as Washington, D.C. (D.C. Code § 2-1401.01) or Madison, Wis., (Madison Gen. Ordinance § 39.03).  Protection from adverse actions based on personal appearance, although most often discussed in terms of grooming and dress, might include actions based on sexual attraction or the jealousy of an employer’s spouse.