Iowa Supreme Court - Okay to Fire Female Employee If She Is a Threat to Your Marriage

by Paul Siciliano

These are the types of cases I find fun and not because I get to add one of my favorite clips from American Dad, when Roger decides to get a windfall by being sexually harassed at work as Laura Vanderboobin.  (No one is willing to harass him until her also pretends to be a male employee to harass Vanderboobin.) 

Technically, this case is not about sexual harassment, but sex discrimination.  Melissa Nelson, a dental assistant, had been working with James Knight, a dentist, for over 10 years.  Near the end of their working relationship, the two had become closer and would text one another during off-work hours.  There would be some flirting and sexual innuendo, but nothing more.  Most of the chatter was sexually innocuous.   

When Dr. Knight's wife found out, she was not pleased and, with the advice of a pastor (I love how that is done), Dr. Knight agreed to fire Ms. Nelson - in the presence of the pastor.  Dr. Knight explained to Nelson's husband that he fired her because his wife felt threatened by the relationship and he feared that it could lead to something one day. 

Nelson sued, but only on the ground of sex discrimination.  If Nelson had been a man, then Mrs. Knight would not have been jealous of the relationship and she would not have lost her job.  There is actually some superficial appeal to that argument.  The courts, however, did not see the appeal.  Knight was granted summary judgment and the Iowa Supreme Court upheld. 

Nelson was not fired because she was a woman, but because of the nature of her relationship with Knight.  Of course, that nature has everything to do with Nelson's gender.  Still, sex discrimination laws are to protect discrimination on the basis of gender, not on the relationship of the parties involved (there may have been a case for sexual harassment but that was not part of Nelson's complaint).  The analysis could be different had Mrs. Knight demand that her husband fire several female employees.  But, Knight only fired one, and that was because she was viewed as a threat to the marriage - not all women, just this woman.

Basically, Nelson was screwed not because she was a woman, but because she was an attractive and charming woman.  Sucks to be her!   It really is the right decision though.  Nelson's gender is tangentially related to the reason for her dismissal.  Of course a man would not have been fired under similar circumstances - because that type of relationship would not have been a threat to Mrs. Knight.  Unless. . . 

Read the decision, Nelson v. McKnight