Iowa Supreme Court Decision May Be
Unattractive to Employees
As published in the Califf & Harper, P.C. August 2013 Newsletter

On July 12, 2013, the Iowa Supreme Court made national headlines when it unanimously rejected Melissa Nelson's ("Nelson") sexual discrimination claim in Nelson v. James H. Knight DDS, P.C..  Nelson had sued her employer, Dr. James Knight ("Dr. Knight"), a Fort Dodge dentist, for sexual discrimination after he terminated her employment because "he feared he would try to have an affair with her down the road if he did not fire her."

Nelson argued Dr. Knight fired her because he was physically attracted to her. Further, Nelson argued "her gender was a motivating factor in her termination because she would not have lost her job if she had been a man."  Dr. Knight argued "Nelson was terminated not because of her sex—after all, he only employs women—but because of the nature of their relationship and the perceived threat to Dr. Knight's marriage."

The Court first examined the relevant statutes and numerous cases to determine what qualifies as sexual discrimination under Iowa law.  The Court then stated "Title VII and the Iowa Civil Rights Act are not general fairness laws, and an employer does not violate them by treating an employee unfairly so long as the employer does not engage in discrimination based upon the employees protected status.”  The Court conceded that an employer "cannot legally fire an employee simply because the employer finds the employee too attractive or not attractive enough," however, the Court determined that the facts of the case did not demonstrate that Nelson was fired simply because she was "too attractive."  Rather, the Court found that "Nelson was terminated because of her consensual personal relationship with [Dr. Knight], not because of her gender."

Ultimately, this distinction provided the basis for the Court's rejection of Nelson's claim.  The Court reasoned that Title VII and the Iowa Civil Rights Act will protect an employee from being fired because they are attractive, however, it will not protect an attractive employee from being fired if they have a "consensual personal relationship” with their employer.

Critics of the Court's decision argue the "consensual personal relationship" between Nelson and Dr. Knight would probably not have arisen if Nelson was not attractive and female.  Further, Nelson did nothing to encourage Dr. Knight's sexual feelings.  Generally, the critics feel there is too fine a line to distinguish between firing someone simply because they are attractive, and firing someone for feelings of attraction that arose out of a personal relationship that the attractive employee did little to encourage; and in the end, Nelson was fired because Dr. Knight was attracted to her.

The Court repeatedly acknowledged the seeming unfairness of the ruling, but insisted the facts of the case do not support a claim of sexual discrimination under Iowa law.  The potential important take away from this case is that if you are an employee in the state of Iowa, you should be cautious in developing personal relationships with employers because under Iowa law, if the relationship has a "consensual personal” dimension, then it could be grounds for your termination.
For more information on this topic please contact Califf & Harper, P.C. by calling 309-764-8300 or 1-888-764-4999. This article is intended to provide general information regarding the topic discussed herein but is not intended to constitute individual legal advice.