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'Irresistible Attraction' Ruling Based on 8th Cir Decision

By Robyn Hagan Cain on December 28, 2012 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

You’ve probably heard about it by now: Last week, the all-male Iowa Supreme Court ruled that an employer could fire an employee for being too attractive. According to the state court, such conduct “does not amount to unlawful sex discrimination” under the Iowa Civil Rights Act.

What you may not realize is that the controversial decision is consistent with a 2006 employment law ruling from the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals.

Let’s compare and contrast, shall we?

In last week's case, Dr. James Knight, a dentist, fired Melissa Nelson, his dental assistant, after 10 years of employment. Knight admitted that Nelson was a good dental assistant, and Nelson conceded that Knight generally treated her with respect.

Knight, however, began making comments that Nelson's clothes were "distracting" and sending Nelson personal text messages. Nelson didn't respond to Knight's inappropriate comments, but she didn't tell him to knock it off either.

When his wife discovered the texts, she demanded that Knight fire Nelson to save their marriage. So he fired her. With his pastor as a witness.

The Iowa Supreme Court --referencing an Eighth Circuit decision -- ruled that Nelson's dismissal didn't violate the Iowa Civil Rights Act because she wasn't fired based on her sex, but because her friendly relationship with Knight triggered personal jealousy.

(The aforementioned Eighth Circuit case was Tenge v. Phillips Modern Ag Co., in which the federal appellate court agreed that an employer could fire a flirtatious employee to save his marriage. In that case, the Eighth Circuit reasoned that if an act of sexual favoritism doesn't constitute discrimination, then treating an employee unfavorably because of such a relationship doesn't violate the law either.

The distinction in Nelson's claim was that she didn't flirt with Knight.

Though Nelson argued that sexual harassment is a violation of discrimination law -- and firing an employee to avoid harassment should be treated similarly -- the Iowa Supreme Court found that an isolated decision to terminate an employee before a hostile work environment arises did not create a hostile atmosphere.

There are plenty of people who think the Iowa Supreme Court got this decision wrong. (After all, the court admits that Nelson was unfairly fired.) But does the problem actually date back to the Eighth Circuit's ruling? Should an employer be able to fire an employee to save his marriage?

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