Last week the Iowa Supreme Court confirmed its earlier ruling that a male dentist’s decision to terminate his “irresistibly attractive” female assistant was not sex discrimination under Iowa law. Despite their 10 years of working together, the dentist, James Knight, claimed the firing of Melissa Nelson was necessary to save his marriage since he was concerned he might be tempted to stray. The dentist’s wife reportedly shared that concern. Mrs. Knight also worked at the dental office and had discovered certain text messages sent by Dr. Knight to Nelson and demanded that Nelson be fired. The assistant alleged she was discriminated against because the decision was made on the basis of her sex since Knight would not have terminated her if she were a man. The Iowa high court disagreed and ruled the termination was not gender-based but was instead motivated by the dentist’s “feelings and emotions.”
The Iowa Court specifically limited its decision to the facts in front of it and highlighted that no sexual harassment claim was alleged and that the outcome may or may not have been different had one been a part of the lawsuit. It also left open the issue of whether a pattern of adverse actions against those of a particular gender would infer discrimination. Whether a court in one of the more employee-friendly states such as New York or California would follow this approach remains to be seen. One can imagine other courts could conclude that gender was a factor because Mrs. Knight urged her husband to fire Ms. Nelson because she was a rival woman. At a minimum, the case highlights the legal entanglements that can ensue from workplace romance or, in this case, apparently, near romance. While it is a win for employers, one can imagine that neither Dr. Knight nor his wife are all too pleased at having to defend their actions all the way to the Iowa Supreme Court.