The Iowa Supreme Court recently addressed the issue of whether firing an employee who has not engaged in flirtatious conduct simply because the boss views the employee as an irresistible attraction is actionable gender bias under Title VII. The case involved a dental hygienist, Melissa Nelson, and her employer, James Knight. She had been working for Mr. Knight for over ten years, but in the last six months of her employment, Knight said that Nelson’s clothing was too tight and “distracting.” Although Knight made several sexually suggestive comments to Nelson about her sex life, Nelson did not indulge the flirtatious behavior. However the two began texting outside of work about benign matters. When Knight’s wife discovered the text messages, she demanded that Knight fire Nelson. Consequently, in the presence of a pastor, Knight told Nelson that she was becoming a “detriment” to his family and that for the sake of both of their families, she was being terminated. Knight met separately with Nelson’s husband and told Nelson’s husband that although Nelson had done nothing wrong, Knight “feared” he would engage in an affair with her if she continued working with him. Nelson was only given one month’s severance.
Nelson filed a lawsuit alleging gender discrimination under Title VII. On appeal before an all-male panel, the Iowa Supreme Court stated it did not find Knight’s behavior discriminatory. However, the Court noted that if Knight had a history of repeatedly firing females because they were “distracting” there would be a possible basis for gender discrimination. Nelson’s attorney, in a reaction to the decision, called for a more diverse bench on the Supreme Court and noted that but for Nelson’s gender, she would not have been terminated. Read more on the Court’s decision here.