Last year we reported on the Iowa Supreme Court’s decision in Nelson v. James H. Knight, DDS (Iowa, December 21, 2012), in which the court held that a dental practice did not discriminate against a female assistant by terminating her because her good looks and personal relationship with the dentist triggered jealousy on the part of the dentist’s wife. The court rejected the claim of Melissa Nelson that her boss, Dr. Knight, terminated her because of her gender and would not have terminated her if she had been male.
Recently, after some negative media coverage and a petition for rehearing filed by Nelson, the Iowa Supreme Court reconsidered its decision and issued a revised opinion. But the result was the same. The court affirmed the district court’s decision to dismiss Nelson’s claim.
On first blush the court’s decision may seem unjust. But, in fact, it is well-supported by precedent and consistent with the purpose of Title VII – to prevent discrimination on the basis of certain protected statuses, not on the basis of personal relationships. The court noted that there is a substantial body of case law holding that sexual favoritism, where one employee is treated more favorably than members of the opposite sex because of a consensual relationship with the boss, does not violate Title VII. Following the same logic, treating an employee unfavorably because of such a relationship does not violate the law, either.
The court acknowledged the unfairness of the situation to Nelson, who did not initiate any sexually suggestive conduct with Dr. Knight or do anything wrong. But the court noted that “Title VII and the Iowa Civil Rights Act are not general fairness laws, and an employer does not violate them by treating an employee unfairly so long as the employer does not engage in discrimination based upon the employee’s protected status.” The court concluded that Nelson was fired not because of her gender – there were several other women in the office who were not let go – but because of her good looks and personal relationship with Dr. Knight. Nelson’s termination was undoubtedly unfair, but it was not illegal.