In a case that drew national publicity, the Iowa Supreme Court recently affirmed its previous decision rejecting the sex discrimination claim filed by a dental assistant who was terminated because of fears that her boss could not resist her temptations. In Nelson v. James H. Knight, DDS, the plaintiff was a long-term employee with a good performance record. There were no allegations of especially inappropriate behavior on her part or on the part of her supervising dentist. According to the plaintiff, the dentist's wife became upset over a developing friendship with her husband, and insisted that he terminate the plaintiff's employment. She sued, alleging sex discrimination.
On rehearing, the court addressed the question of whether termination based on a male employee's wife's concern over their relationship constitutes sex discrimination. The court concluded that the termination was not based on gender, but instead on the relationship between the parties. The plaintiff argued that but for her gender, she would not have been fired, because the feelings of jealousy presumably would not have arisen with a male employee. While true, the court responded that other female assistants were not subjected to the same treatment, and that the plaintiff had been replaced by a female employee.
Sexual favoritism, or treating an employee unfavorably because of such a relationship is not gender discrimination. While noting that the termination decision was unfair and ungenerous, the court ultimately concluded that it could not expand employment discrimination law to cover these types of consensual relationships in the workplace. While a bad human resource decision, terminations on similar grounds do not constitute sex discrimination.