In late 2009, Dr. Knight took his children to Colorado for Christmas vacation. Dr. Knight’s wife Jeanne, who was also an employee in the dental practice, stayed home. Jeanne Knight found out that her husband and Nelson were texting each other during that time. When Dr. Knight returned home, Jeanne Knight confronted her husband and demanded that he terminate Nelson’s employment. Both of them consulted with the senior pastor of their church, who agreed with the decision.
After briefing and oral argument, the district court sustained the motion. The court reasoned in part, “Ms. Nelson was fired not because of her gender but because she was threat to the marriage of Dr. Knight.” Nelson appeals.
While the two never became amorous, Dr. Knight made numerous comments about his sexual attraction to her, such as telling her that if she saw his pants bulging it meant her clothing was too revealing, and Nelson once commented to him that she and her husband had sex infrequently.
Nelson said Dr. Knight replied that seemed like “having a Lamborghini in the garage and never driving it.”
Can a male employer terminate a long-time 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? This is the question we are required to answer today. For
the reasons stated herein, we ultimately conclude the conduct does not
amount to unlawful sex discrimination in violation of the Iowa Civil
We emphasize the limits of our decision. The employee did not
bring a sexual harassment or hostile work environment claim; we are not
deciding how such a claim would have been resolved in this or any other
case. Also, when an employer takes an adverse employment action
against a person or persons because of a gender-specific characteristic,
that can violate the civil rights laws. The record in this case, however,
does not support such an allegation.
Because this case was decided on summary judgment, we set forth
the facts in the light most favorable to the plaintiff, Melissa Nelson.
Nelson’s one-count petition alleges that Dr. Knight discriminated against her on the basis of sex. Nelson does not contend that her employer committed sexual harassment. See McElroy v. State, 637 N.W.2d 488, 499–500 (Iowa 2001) (discussing when sexual harassment amounts to unlawful sex discrimination and restating the elements of both quid pro quo and hostile work environment sexual harassment). Her argument, rather, is that Dr. Knight terminated her because of her gender and would not have terminated her if she was male.
It is widely recognized that sexual harassment is a form of sexual discrimination actionable under Title VII. One type of harassment is linked to the grant or denial of tangible aspects of employment. This is known as quid pro quo sexual harassment. Additionally, in 1986, the United States Supreme Court decided the watershed case of Meritor Savings Bank v. Vinson, which held that a sexual harassment case could also be brought under Title VII on the basis of a hostile or abusive work environment. Thus, Title VII is violated when sexual harassment is so "severe or pervasive `to alter the conditions of [the victim's] employment and create an abusive working environment.'"
The concept that a hostile work environment claim is actionable when the sexual harassment is so severe or pervasive as to alter the conditions of employment and create an abusive working environment has been frequently applied by courts since Meritor and is well engrained in the law. ...
A hostile work environment claim is premised on the concept that sexual harassment can impact the conditions of employment well beyond the denial or granting of economic or tangible benefits. Title VII covers more than the terms and conditions of employment "in the narrow contractual sense." Instead, when an employer creates a hostile work environment, employees are forced to "`run a gauntlet of sexual abuse in return for the privilege of being allowed to work and make a living....'" The hostile or abusive work environment itself affects a condition of employment because the employee must endure an unreasonably offensive environment or quit working.
Thus, when an employee is exposed to sexual harassment that is so severe or pervasive that it creates an abusive working environment, the sexual harassment necessarily affects a condition of employment. The conditions of employment are altered by the existence of the hostile working environment. This is the very essence of the claim.
IN THE SUPREME COURT OF IOWA
Filed July 12, 2013
From quote above: Her argument, rather, is that Dr. Knight terminated her because of her gender and would not have terminated her if she was male.
This is one of those unfortunate cases in which there certainly has been damnum, but it is damnum absque injuria; it is, no doubt, a hardship upon the plaintiff to be without a remedy, but, by that consideration we ought not to be influenced. Hard cases, it has been frequently observed, are apt to introduce bad law.
The Eighth Circuit first noted the considerable body of authority that “ ‘sexual favoritism,’ where one employee was treated more favorably than members of the opposite sex because of a consensual relationship with the boss,” does not violate Title VII. Id. at 908–909. The court distilled that law as follows: “[T]he principle that emerges from the above cases is that absent claims of coercion or widespread sexual favoritism, where an employee engages in consensual sexual conduct with a supervisor and an employment decision is based on this conduct, Title VII is not implicated because any benefits of the relationship are due to the sexual conduct, rather than the gender, of the employee.”
The Eighth Circuit believed these sexual favoritism precedents were relevant. The court’s unstated reasoning was that if a specific instance of sexual favoritism does not constitute gender discrimination, treating an employee unfavorably because of such a relationship does not violate the law either.
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