Just before Christmas, an Iowa Supreme Court employment decision attracted significant nationwide publicity and criticism. Nelson v. James H. Knight DDS involved a sex discrimination claim by a dental assistant who was terminated because the dentist's wife viewed her as a threat to the couple's marriage. The plaintiff had worked for the dentist for ten years, and was without question an outstanding employee. The dentist claimed that he was becoming emotionally attached to the plaintiff, and that her continuing employment could eventually interfere with his marriage.
The plaintiff filed suit under state civil rights laws claiming sex discrimination. She alleged that had she not been female, she would not have been fired. The Iowa Supreme Court concluded that the termination did not constitute sex discrimination under either state law or Title VII. The court drew a distinction between treatment based on sex, and that based on sexual conduct. The plaintiff may not have been singled out for termination had she not been female, but other female employees were not subject to the same treatment due to the lack of similar sexual attraction.
The Iowa decision follows similar Title VII cases finding sex discrimination laws inapplicable to employment decisions based on consensual affairs, jealousy or related relationship reasons. Courts distinguish these cases from situations involving sexual harassment, which is legally considered to be based on gender. In this case, the plaintiff was replaced by another female assistant, further distinguishing the decision from one based on gender.
The Iowa court noted that just because the termination decision was legal does not mean that it was fair. In states that follow employment at-will principles, the fairness or wisdom of these decisions will not be questioned by courts. Of course, this does not protect employers from adverse publicity or human resource implications of arbitrary or unfair employment decisions. Even if the employer ultimately prevails in court, the expense and damage to the organization from these decisions can be as severe as a negative legal outcome.