You’re probably heard about it by now — a dentist fired a woman who had worked for him for a decade because she was ‘irresistible.’ He asked her about her sex life. He talked about her clothing. We know this now thanks to a decision rendered by the Iowa Supreme Court.
For a court that demonstrated such reasonableness in considering same-sex marriage, the turn in Melissa Nelson v. James H. Knight DDS, PC and James Knight is baffling.
Let’s work our way through the decision itself. Here’s the crux of the argument made by the woman in question —
She argues that any termination because of a boss’s physical interest in subordinate amounts to sex discrimination: “Plaintiff’s sex is implicated by the very nature of the termination.” Second, she suggests that without some kind of employee misconduct requirement, Dr. Knight’s position becomes simply a way of enforcing stereotypes and permitting pretexts: The employer can justify a series of adverse employment actions against persons of one gender by claiming, ‘My spouse thought I was attracted to them.’ Third, she argues that if Dr. Knight would have been liable to Nelson for sexually harassing her, he should not be able to avoid liability for terminating her out of fear that he was going to harass her.
The third point seems to fit within Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (see ‘explicitly or implicitly,’ which could just as well read ‘demonstrably or tangentially’), which says —
Unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors, and other verbal or physical conduct of a sexual nature constitutes sexual harassment when submission to or rejection of this conduct explicitly or implicitly affects an individual’s employment, unreasonably interferes with an individual’s work performance or creates an intimidating, hostile or offensive work environment.
But the court takes a different approach, arguing that —
The civil rights laws seek to insure that employees are treated the same regardless of their sex or other protected status. Yet even taking Nelson’s view of the facts, Dr. Knight’s unfair decision to terminate Nelson (while paying her a rather ungenerous one month’s severance) does not jeopardize that goal. This is illustrated by the fact that Dr. Knight hired a female replacement for Nelson.
Which — what? Does Dr. Knight find the replacement less attractive? Is there a bright line test for sexual behavior that hasn’t yet been made known to the public at large? Did the wife and the two pastors cited in the decision sign off on the new hiring?
The court continues, citing a case wherein it was stated that —
[W]e do not believe that Title VII authorizes courts to declare unlawful every arbitrary and unfair employment decision.
So if it’s arbitrary and unfair and it isn’t Title VII, does it still count as wrongful termination?
The court goes on to cite a case in which an employer fired an employee because he was jealous of the relationship she had with another employee, a case where an employer fired an employee to hide a past sexual relationship from his wife, and a case where an employer fired an employee after the employee terminated their sexual relationship, though — by citing these cases — the court made me think of Beckford v. Department of Corrections (which I’ve seen cited as Beckford v. Florida) and other cases similar to it, where the legal emphasis seems to be on creating a harassment-free workplace.
What are your thoughts?