On July 12, 2013, the Iowa Supreme Court took the unusual step of issuing a second opinion in a case to reaffirm its holding that it’s legal for an employer to terminate an employee for being too attractive in Iowa.
In December of 2012, the Iowa Supreme Court issued its first opinion in Nelson v. James H. Knight DDS, P.C., and held that a male dentist did not violate the Iowa Civil Rights Act when he terminated a female employee because he viewed her as “an irresistible attraction” and a threat to his marriage. The decision resulted in a fair amount of publicity and public criticism, much of which emphasized that the Iowa Supreme Court was all male. The Iowa Supreme Court later granted the Plaintiff’s request for reconsideration, but the outcome did not change.
In its new decision on the case, the Iowa Supreme Court reaffirmed its previous holding and explained 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.
. . .
Nelson’s viewpoint would allow any termination decision related to a consensual relationship to be challenged as a discriminatory action because the employee could argue the relationship would not have existed but for her or his gender. This logic would contradict federal caselaw to the effect that adverse employment action stemming from a consensual workplace relationship (absent sexual harassment) is not actionable under Title VII.
It’s important to note the limitations of the Iowa Supreme Court’s holding in this case. The only question before the Court was whether the employee was terminated because of her gender. The Plaintiff did not allege quid pro quo or hostile environment sexual harassment. The Iowa Supreme Court held that even though the termination was motivated by “individual feelings and emotions” towards a specific individual, there was no evidence that the termination was motivated by the Plaintiff’s status as a woman.
Takeaway: Although there is case law distinguishing legal terminations that are motivated by relationships, feelings, or jealousy from illegal terminations motivated by gender, these kinds of terminations remain risky. Employers would be wise to seek legal counsel before terminating an employee for being too attractive – even in Iowa.