In Iowa, an employer may lawfully fire an employee for being too attractive.  The Iowa Supreme Court recently held that an employer does not violate the Iowa Civil Rights Act when the employer terminates an employee “simply because the boss views the employee as an irresistible attraction.”

In Nelson v. James H. Knight DDS, P.C., the plaintiff, Melissa Nelson, worked for the defendant’s dental clinic for over 10 years.  Towards the end of her employment, there were several occasions when Nelson’s boss, Dr. Knight, complained that her clothing was too tight and “distracting.”  Dr. Knight admitted that he once told Nelson that if she saw his “pants bulging,” she would know her clothing was too revealing.  On another occasion, after Nelson made a comment regarding her infrequent sex life, Dr. Knight said “that’s like having a Lamborghini in the garage and never driving it.”

During the last six months of Nelson’s employment, Nelson and Dr. Knight began to exchange personal text messages.  When Dr. Knight’s wife – who also worked at the clinic – found the text messages, she demanded that Dr. Knight terminate Nelson.  Dr. Knight’s wife characterized Nelson as “a big threat” to their marriage.  Dr. Knight subsequently fired Nelson, and Nelson sued.

In her lawsuit, Nelson did not allege quid pro quo or hostile work environment sexual harassment.  Instead, Nelson’s only legal claim was that Dr. Knight fired her because of her gender.  The Iowa Supreme Court disagreed and stated that:

Nelson’s arguments warrant serious consideration, but we ultimately think a distinction exists 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.  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 also emphasized that Dr. Knight hired a female replacement for Nelson as evidence that the decision was not gender-based.

In reaching its decision in Nelson, the Iowa Supreme Court relied on a Title VII case, Tenge v. Phillips Modern AG Co., 446 F.3d 903 (8th Cir. 2006).  In Tenge, a supervisor terminated an employee after the employee engaged in a consensual, flirtatious relationship with her supervisor and the supervisor’s wife became suspicious about the nature of their relationship.  In holding that the termination did not violate Title VII, the Tenge court found that the termination was not based on the employee’s gender, but instead was based on her flirtatious conduct.  The court stated that “absent claims of coercion or widespread sexual favoritism, where an employee engages in consensual sexual conduct with a supervisor and an employment decision is based on this conduct, Title VII is not implicated because any benefits of the relationship are due to the sexual conduct, rather than the gender, of the employee.”
In Nelson, the court acknowledged that the Tenge case was distinguishable because in Tenge the employee flirted with her supervisor while in Nelson the employee denied any flirtatious behavior.  But the Nelson court held that the primary issue in discrimination cases is the employer’s motivation, not the employee’s conduct.  Accordingly, the Nelson court found that Dr. Knight’s termination of Nelson was lawful because it was motivated by Dr. Knight’s particular relationship with Nelson and his feelings towards her, but was not based on Nelson’s membership in a protected class.
Takeaways:  The Nelson and Tenge decisions are helpful for employers because they distinguish between employment decisions motivated by gender and employment decisions motivated by relationships or conduct.  This gives employers some flexibility for resolving conflicts related to workplace relationships.  At the same time, workplace relationships may be perceived as coercive or harassing.  Therefore, employers confronted with issues relating to workplace relationships still need to be cautious about potential claims for quid pro quo or hostile work environment sexual harassment.