Last month, the Iowa Supreme Court held that a dentist could discriminate against his dental assistant because he found her irresistibly attractive. The dentist, James Knight, decided to fire his dental assistant, Melissa Nelson, because he was concerned that his attraction for her would lead him to try to have an affair with her if he did not sever ties with her. He admitted that she had done nothing wrong and that she was the best dental assistant he’d ever had. But for his attraction to her, he would not have fired her.
Nelson filed a sex discrimination case against Knight. Her position was pretty straightforward–if she had been a man, Knight wouldn’t have fired her. Thus, she argued, he fired her because of her gender. Rather than adopting this common sense position, the Iowa Supreme Court reasoned that Knight did not fire Nelson because of her gender, but rather, because he found her attractive and she represented a “perceived threat to [his] marriage.” In other words, he fired her because he was concerned that he might begin to sexually harass her if he didn’t.
The Iowa Supreme Court’s reasoning has the potential to significantly curtail protections against discrimination. What could be next? Under the court’s reasoning, an employer could successfully argue that he is afraid he might say something racially insensitive to a black employee because racially insensitive language is part of his normal vocabulary and, so, he had to fire the black employee before that happened. Thankfully, the Iowa Supreme Court does not set the law for the rest of the country.