Is it sex discrimination if someone is fired just because they are considered too attractive? This question came up before the Iowa Supreme Court, which ruled last week that a dental assistant fired because her boss considered her too attractive and his wife considered her a threat to their marriage had not suffered illegal sex discrimination.
The dental assistant, Melissa Nelson, had worked for Dr. James Knight for over ten years. She had never flirted with him, although he had sent her some sexually suggestive text messages and had remarked on a few occasions that her clothing was too tight and distracting. Knight's wife found out about the text messages and, a short time later, Knight fired Nelson, who had been a good employee for over 10 years.
The Iowa Supreme Court framed the question this way:
Can a male employer terminate a female employee because the
employer’s wife, due to no fault of the employee, is concerned about the
nature of the relationship between the employer and the employee?
Part of the reason for the Court's decision was the way the question was phrased. The Court identified as the sole cause of the termination the wife's concern about the nature of the relationship between the employer and the employee. Framing the question this way virtually dictated the result and answer.
Generally and under Kentucky law, discrimination must be the substantial and motivating factor but for which the termination would not have occurred. So discrimination does not have to be the only reason but it has to be an important reason. It seems that the question in this case might have been framed as follows:
Is sex discrimination a substantial and motivating factor but for which a female employee would not have been fired where the wife of her male heterosexual employer is concerned about a possible sexual relationship between the employee and the employer?
Framed that way the question becomes harder and one more likely to be answered in the employee's favor.
The case is Melissa Nelson v. James Knight PC, Iowa Supreme Court, No. 11-1857. Here's a video on the case from CNN.