Employer Who Fired Worker Because of His Attraction to Her Did Not Commit Unlawful Gender Discrimination, Court Rules

A dentist in Iowa did not unlawfully discriminate against an employee based on her gender by firing her at his wife’s urging because of his attraction to her. The Iowa Supreme Court found in Nelson v. James H. Knight DDS, P.C., No. 11-1857 (Iowa, Dec. 21, 2012), that the principal motivation for the firing was concern over the employer’s marriage, and that this did not violate the employee’s rights under the state’s anti-discrimination statute. The court made its ruling in the employer’s favor despite compelling arguments from the plaintiff regarding sexual harassment law, and despite the court’s own conclusion that the plaintiff had done nothing wrong that might have justified termination.

The plaintiff, Melissa Nelson, worked for Dr. James Knight’s dental practice as a dental assistant for over ten years. She began working there in 1999, as a twenty year-old recent college graduate. By 2009, Nelson was married with children, and she reportedly looked at Knight as a “friend and father figure.” Slip op. at 3. Knight began to tell Nelson during the last eighteen months of her employment with his practice that he considered her work attire inappropriate. About six months before she was terminated, Nelson and Knight began to correspond by text message, and some of his messages could be characterized as sexually explicit. She said that she never felt uncomfortable as a result of any of his text messages.

In late 2009, Knight’s wife, who was also an employee of the dental practice, learned of his text correspondence with Nelson. She expressed her concern that this threatened their marriage, and Knight decided to terminate Nelson’s employment after consulting with the family’s pastor. He informed Nelson of his decision on January 4, 2010, with another pastor present in the office. Knight reportedly told her she had done nothing wrong and was his best dental assistant. Knight had always employed female dental assistants, and he hired a woman to replace Nelson.

Nelson sued Knight for gender discrimination in violation of the Iowa Civil Rights Act, arguing that he would not have fired her but for her gender. The trial court granted summary judgment for Knight, finding that her gender did not motivate the firing, but rather Knight’s concerns over his marriage. Nelson appealed to the Iowa Supreme Court, which affirmed the ruling.

The court noted that Nelson made several arguments meriting serious consideration, but it ultimately concluded that Knight’s actions, while certainly unfair to Nelson, were not unlawful. Nelson argued that a firing to avoid sexual harassment, which she argued was Knight’s true purpose, was unlawful in the same way as actual sexual harassment. The court disagreed with this argument, holding that the main purpose of prohibitions on sexual harassment, the prevention of hostile work environments, did not exist in this case.

The court instead concluded that “sexual favoritism” was the central issue of this case, applying Tenge v. Phillips Modern Ag Co., 446 F.3d 903 (8th Cir. 2006). The court in Tenge held that it did not violate Title VII of the Civil Rights Act to favor one employee over others of the opposite sex based on “a consensual relationship with the boss.” Id. at 908. A similar relationship existed between Nelson and Knight, the court found, and this was the central reason for the firing decision.

The lawyers at Phillips & Associates represent victims of workplace sexual harassment and discrimination in New York City and surrounding areas, fighting to protect their rights at the municipal, state, and federal levels. To schedule a free and confidential consultation, contact us today online or at (212) 248-7431.

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