Unfair termination does not violate Iowa Civil Rights Act

by Amanda Atherton and Deb Hulett | December 21, 2012

[The following summary was written by Nyemaster Goode attorneys Amanda Atherton and Deb Hulett]

Today, the Iowa Supreme Court reaffirmed that an unfair termination decision does not violate the Iowa Civil Rights Act so long as the employer does not discriminate “based upon the employee’s protected status.” Nelson v. James H. Knight DDS, P.C.

This case came to the Court upon Plaintiff’s appeal of the district court’s decision granting summary judgment in favor of the employer. Plaintiff Melissa Nelson, began working in the dental office of Defendant James Knight in 1999. She was employed as a dental hygienist and Knight conceded that Nelson was a good employee.

Knight occasionally mentioned to Nelson that he thought her clothing was inappropriate for work, and sometimes asked her to put on a lab coat. Nelson denied wearing clothing that was tight or revealing, but always put on a lab coat when asked. Knight also made sporadic comments to Nelson about her appearance, such as noting when she wore tight pants and asking her about her sexual experiences. Despite this, Nelson considered Knight a friend and mentor.

During the last six months of Nelson’s employment, she and Knight began sending text messages to each other about non-work-related matters. The Court characterized these texts as “relatively innocuous.”  When Knight’s wife found out the two were texting, however, she confronted Knight and demanded that he fire Nelson. Ms. Knight felt that Nelson posed a serious threat to the Knights’ marriage.

Knight did not believe Nelson had done nothing wrong. He ultimately agreed that it was detrimental to his marriage to be around Nelson every day. He felt he was becoming too attached to her and feared he might attempt to start a sexual relationship with her. Knight and his wife sought counsel from their pastor, who advised Knight to terminate Nelson. Knight terminated Nelson and replaced her with a female employee—in fact, all of the dental hygienists who have worked in Knight’s office have been female.

The Court affirmed the district court’s ruling granting summary judgment in favor of the defendants. In the Court’s view, the termination decision in this case did not violate the Iowa Civil Rights Act because it was not “based on gender itself.” Instead, it was “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.” The Court found that result is consistent with the Iowa Civil Rights act and its goal “to insure that employees are treated the same regardless of their sex or other protected status.”

The Court acknowledged the plaintiff’s “legitimate concern about a slippery slope.” But here, the Court found that Nelson presented no evidence that Knight terminated her based on a gender stereotype. And the record in this case did not show that Knight had taken adverse employment actions against several female employees because he was concerned about being attracted to them or because his wife demanded—out of jealousy—that Knight terminate them. Nelson did not assert a sexual harassment claim, and the record did not support such a claim. Instead, the Court concluded that the undisputed facts showed that “Nelson was fired because Ms. Knight, unfairly or not, viewed her as a threat to her marriage.”


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