Protecting Employers Since 1985

February 2013

By: Joseph H. Laverty, Esq.

Does a male employer commit sex discrimination under the Iowa Civil Rights Act when he terminates a female employee because, through no fault of the employee’s, the employer’s wife finds her a threat to their marriage? In Nelson v. Knight, the Iowa Supreme Court recently answered this question in the negative.

Ms. Nelson worked in Dr. Knight’s dental office for ten-and-a-half years. Knight admitted that Nelson was a good dental assistant, and she in turn acknowledged that he had integrity and treated her with respect. During the last year-and-a-half of her employment, Knight started commenting on Nelson’s clothing, claiming it was too tight and revealing, and asking her to put on a lab coat. In the last six months of her employment, the relationship between the parties became a little more personal, when they began texting each other about personal as well as work issues. While some of Knight’s comments were sexual in nature, Nelson maintained that she thought of him as a friend or father figure, and denied ever flirting with him or seeking an intimate or sexual relationship with him.

Knight’s wife, who also worked at the dental office, found out about the texts between Knight and Nelson, confronted Knight about it, and demanded that he fire Nelson. After consulting with his pastor, Knight decided to heed his wife’s instruction and terminated Nelson, telling her that their relationship had become a detriment to his family. Nelson was terminated with Knight’s pastor present as a witness.

Nelson sued, claiming her termination was sex discrimination under the Iowa Civil Rights Act. Nelson claimed that this qualified as discrimination because of her sex since she would not have been terminated “but for” her sex. Ultimately, the court struck down her arguments, reasoning that “a distinction exists between (1) an isolated employment decision based on personal relations… even if the relations would not have existed if the employee had been of the opposite gender, and (2) a decision based on gender itself.” The court noted that the outcome might have been different if Knight had sexually harassed Nelson, or if he had terminated several female employees because he or his wife were concerned about his relationship with them. However, in this case, while the decision to terminate Nelson may have been unfair, it was not actionable sex discrimination under the Iowa Civil Rights Act.

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