“Christmas came a few days early for Iowan employers, when the Iowa Supreme Court ruled that a male employer acted legally when he fired a female employee because he had become irresistibly attracted to her – a situation the employer’s wife, also an employee, found objectionable.” (Mintz Levin)
Melissa Nelson had been Dr. James Knight’s dental assistant for ten years. But when their office banter got a little too personal for Mrs. Knight, the dentist fired his assistant for being too attractive. Ms. Nelson sued Dr. Knight for sexual discrimination, writes Richard Tuschman of law firm Akerman Senterfitt:
“The Iowa Supreme Court disagreed. The court cited several cases in which courts have held that that an employer does not engage in unlawful gender discrimination by discharging a female employee who is involved in a consensual relationship that has triggered personal jealousy, absent allegations that the relationship stemmed from unwelcome sexual advances or a hostile work environment.”
Three takeaways for employers and HR managers:
1. A termination doesn’t have to be fair to be legal:
“Nevertheless, based both on precedent and the underlying purpose of anti-discrimination laws, the Court properly found that the law does not protect an employee from unfair decisions or romantic jealousy.” (Mintz Levin)
2. At-will employment is a two-way street:
“I can’t speak for Iowa, but in Texas where employment is at-will, the employer can terminate an employee at any time and the employee can quit at any time. Both parties are generally permitted to terminate the relationship for no reason at all.” (Looper Reed)
3. Tread carefully if you’re considering similar action:
“As the Nelson case illustrates, the line between illicit gender discrimination and lawful favoritism (or, in this case ‘un-favoritism’) is not always clear. Dr. Knight won his case and may have saved his marriage in the process, though it was probably a costly victory. Employers with a similar issue should consult with an employment lawyer, not just a pastor.” (Akerman Senterfitt)
Think the court got it wrong? You’re not alone: Hofstra University law professor Joanna Grossman thinks the Justices issued “an absurd decision on sexual jealousy and employment.” Read her take here.
- Don’t Hate Me ‘Cause I’m Beautiful: Termination Based on “Irresistible Attraction” is Not Unlawful Sex Discrimination – Mintz Levin
- Yes, Dear, I Will Fire My Employee Because She is “Hot” – Akerman Senterfitt
- Too Sexy To Work Here: Fired For Being Attractive – Looper Reed & McGraw, P.C.
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