A male employer can terminate a female employee because the employer’s wife is concerned about a possible relationship between the employer and employee.  At least this is true in Iowa as reported by CNN last month.

Melissa Nelson worked as a dental assistant for Dr. Knight for over a decade.  Dr. Knight admitted that she was a good dental assistant.  Both Dr. Knight and Ms. Nelson were married.  Ms. Nelson denies that she ever flirted with Dr. Knight and considered Dr. Knight a friend and father figure.  During her employment, Dr. Knight complained to Ms. Nelson that “her clothing was too tight and revealing and ‘distracting.’”  The doctor told her that if she “saw his pants bulging”, she would know her clothing was too revealing.  A year later, the two began texting each other regarding both work and personal matters.  On at least one occasion, Ms. Nelson recalled receiving a text from Dr. Knight asking her “how often she experienced an orgasm.”  Although both deny any affair, when Dr. Knight’s wife discovered the texts, she demanded that Dr. Knight terminate Ms. Nelson’s employment as “she was a big threat to [their] marriage.”  Subsequently, Dr. Knight terminated Ms. Nelson’s employment stating that “their relationship had become a detriment to Dr. Knight’s family[.]”

Ms. Nelson filed suit against Dr. Knight for sex discrimination, but did not contend that Dr. Knight sexually harassed her.   The question before the Iowa Supreme Court was “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.”  Ultimately dismissing Ms. Nelson’s claim and answering “Yes”, the Iowa Supreme Court in an interesting decision [pdf] found no discrimination based on her gender.  In its decision, the court considered several federal decisions with similar facts.

So does this case give employers carte blanche authority to terminate employees based on their looks?  No, although the case highlights that there are limits on claims such as gender discrimination especially when Dr. Knight hired a female to replace Ms. Nelson (and his staff was historically female), the case is fact specific.  Employers are best advised to make employment decisions based upon employee’s work performance.