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Firing of 'Irresistible' Employee Does Not Equal Sex Discrimination?

If the sex discrimination laws do not protect an employee like Nelson, then I fear we are taking a huge civil rights step backward.

January 10, 2013

Every now and again an employer wins a case that offends my sensibilities as an advocate for employers' rights. This is one of those stories.

By now, you've likely read about the employee fired because her boss found her too attractive. You've also probably read how the Iowa Supreme Court concluded that an employee fired under these circumstances cannot pursue a claim for sex discrimination under that state's civil rights laws.

Melissa Nelson worked as a dental hygienist for Dr. James Knight for 10 1/2 years. Knight terminated Nelson at his wife's request. Nelson never flirted with Knight or sought an intimate or sexual relationship with him. Knight, however, was attracted to her, and made several comments to her about the tightness of her clothes, and their effect on the tightness of a certain area of his clothes.

Following Nelson's termination, Knight replaced her with another female. In fact, every hygienist who ever worked for Knight was female.

In Nelson v. Knight (12/21/12), the Iowa Supreme Court concluded that Nelson had not presented a sex discrimination claim.

So the question we must answer is … 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….

The civil rights laws seek to insure that employees are treated the same regardless of their sex or other protected status. Yet … Dr. Knight's unfair decision to terminate Nelson … does not jeopardize that goal. This is illustrated by the fact that Dr. Knight hired a female replacement for Nelson….

Nelson raises a legitimate concern about a slippery slope. What if Dr. Knight had fired several female employees because he was concerned about being attracted to them? Or what if Ms. Knight demanded out of jealousy that her spouse terminate the employment of several women? The short answer is that those would be different cases. If an employer repeatedly took adverse employment actions against persons of a particular gender because of alleged personal relationship issues, it might well be possible to infer that gender and not the relationship was a motivating factor.

It is likewise true that a decision based on a gender stereotype can amount to unlawful sex discrimination…. If Nelson could show that she had been terminated because she did not conform to a particular stereotype, this might be a different case. But the record here does not support that conclusion. It is undisputed, rather, that Nelson was fired because Knight, unfairly or not, viewed her as a threat to her marriage.

The media has heavily criticized this decision. That criticism is warranted. Yes, Knight only employs female hygienists, and replaced Nelson with another female. One could also argue that the doctor only fired Nelson because of her looks, not because of her gender. Those arguments, though, ignore the fact that if she was a he, her looks would not have been an issue in her employment at all. The sex discrimination laws are supposed to insulate employees from employment decisions based on sex-based stereotypes, not protect the employers who make those decisions.

Nelson, a ten-plus-year employee, should not have to look for a new job merely because her boss might not be able to control himself around her. If the sex discrimination laws do not protect an employee like Nelson, then I fear we are taking a huge civil rights step backwards.

Written by Jon Hyman, a partner in the Labor & Employment group of Kohrman Jackson & Krantz. For more information, contact Jon at (216) 736-7226 or jth@kjk.com.