Iowa Supreme Court Finds That Dentist's Termination of Employee Because She Was Threat to Marriage Was Not Employment Discrimination

Monday, December 31, 2012
In Nelson v. Knight (No. 11-1857), the Iowa Supreme Court dealt with the issue of whether a male employer can terminate a female employee because the employer’s wife, due to no fault of the employee, is concerned about the nature of the relationship between the employer and the employee.  The employee, Melissa Nelson, worked for the employer, Dr. Knight for ten and a half years.  Dr. Knight admits that Nelson was a good dental assistant. Nelson acknowledges that Dr. Knight generally treated her with respect, and she believed him to be a person of high integrity.

In the last year of her employment, Dr. Knight told Ms. Nelson to put on a lab coat because he found that her tight clothing was too distracting.  Dr. Knight's wife learned that her husband and Ms. Nelson texted each other outside of the office and requested that Dr. Knight terminate Ms. Nelson's employment for the sake of their marriage.  After talking to their pastor, Dr. Knight terminated Ms. Nelson's employment and gave her one month's severance pay.  

Dr. Knight replaced Ms. Nelson with another female.  Historically, all of his dental assistants were women.  Ms. Nelson's attorney argued that she would not have been terminated "but for" her gender.  Dr. Knight responded that Ms. Nelson had been terminated not because of her sex (all of his employees were and are women), but because he believed that she posed a threat to his marriage.  

The Court focused on "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."  After a lengthy review of the law and each side's arguments, the Court determined that Dr. Knight did not engage in unlawful gender discrimination when he fired Ms. Nelson at the request of his wife.
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