Happy New Year everyone! The first blog post of the year centers on a controversial Iowa Supreme Court decision handed down right before the holidays.

In Nelson v. Knight, the Iowa Supreme Court was presented with the question whether a male employer could terminate a female employee because the employer’s wife, due to no fault of the employee, is concerned about the nature of the relationship between the employer and employee? The district court had ruled in favor of the employer on summary judgment and the employee appealed. The Iowa Supreme Court affirmed the ruling of the district court.

Nelson was a dental assistant for Dr. Knight for ten-and-a-half years. Dr. Knight admits that Nelson was a good dental assistant and one of his best employees. Nelson in turn acknowledges that Nelson generally treated her with respect, and she believed him to be a person of high integrity. 

At some point in the last year and a half of Nelson’s employment, Knight began to complain about Nelson’s clothes being too tight and revealing and "distracting". (Nelson denied this claim about her clothes). Then during the last six months or so of Nelson’s employment, Dr. Knight and Nelson started texting each other on both work and personal matters outside the workplace. Neither objected to the texting. Both Knight and Nelson have children, and some of the texts involved updates on kids’ activities and other relatively innocuous matters. Nelson considered Knight to be a friend and father figure, and she denies that she ever flirted with him or sought an intimate or sexual relationship with him. Knight’s wife found out about the texts, confronted her husband and demanded that he terminate Nelson’s employment.

In reading the Court’s opinion, it appears Dr. Knight allegedly made at least a few comments that may have been construed as sexual harassment.  However, it is important to note that Nelson did not sue for sexual harassment but rather sued only on the basis of sex discrimination.

In a decision roundly criticized by the Des Moines Register’s Rekha Basu  because of the seeming unfairness, the Court ruled ruled that the Plaintiff was not fired because of her sex. The court seemed swayed by the fact that all of Dr. Knight’s other employees were women and that Nelson was replaced by a woman.  The court thought there was a distinction between (1) an isolated employment decision based on personal relations (assuming no coercion or quid pro quo), even if the relations would not have existed if the employee had been of the opposite gender, and (2) a decision based on gender itself. The Court said that In the former case, the decision is driven entirely by individual feelings and emotions regarding a specific person. Such a decision is not gender-based, nor is it based on factors that might be a proxy for gender.  The Court went on to state,

The civil rights laws seek to insure that employees are treated the same regardless of their sex or other protected status. Yet even taking Nelson’s view of the facts, Dr. Knight’s unfair decision to terminate Nelson (while paying her a rather ungenerous one month’s severance) does not jeopardize that goal. This is illustrated by the fact that Dr. Knight hired a female replacement for Nelson. As the Platner court observed, "[W]e do not believe that Title VII authorizes courts to declare unlawful every arbitrary and unfair employment decision." 

"[t]he issue before us is not whether a jury could find that Dr. Knight treated Nelson badly. We are asked to decide only if a genuine issue exists as to whether Dr. Knight engaged in unlawful gender discrimination when he fired Nelson at the request of his wife." 

Many have questioned this decision. Thomas Crane of the San Antonio Employment Law Blog observed,


This is a difficult call for all courts.  The case law is clear that in a consensual relationship, both employees should be treated the same.  If the female worker is fired, then the male manager should also be terminated.  But, how can the boss be fired?  So, instead, the courts engage in strained reasoning about what truly motivated the boss when he fired the female worker.  This decision arose after the employer moved for summary judgment.  The court should have simply found sufficient factual issue to allow Ms. Nelson’ claim to go to a jury.  Doubts about motivation should always be resolved by a jury. 

Nelson’s attorney, Paige Fiedler, strongly disagreed with the all-male court’s ruling stating to the Associated Press,
"These judges sent a message to Iowa women that they don’t think men can be held responsible for their sexual desires and that Iowa women are the ones who have to monitor and control their bosses’ sexual desires," Fiedler told the Associated Press. "If they get out of hand, then the women can be legally fired for it."