Nelson v. Knight and the Perils of Being Friendly with Your Boss

by Chelsea Wilson on September 2, 2013

  • SumoMe

(US Employment Law) If you work for a company for over ten years, you’re bound to become pretty close with your boss, right?  Well, a recent decision from the Supreme Court of Iowa shows why, if you’re a member of the opposite sex, you might be better off maintaining a healthy boundary between your personal and professional lives.

In 1999, Melissa Nelson was hired fresh out of community college to work as a dental assistant in the office of Dr. James H. Knight, DDS.  Everything went well, and over several years, Mrs. Nelson and Dr. Knight worked well together. In fact, she eventually became the best dental assistant he ever had, as Dr. Knight would report.

But there was a problem.

It stated with comments about clothing. Dr. Knight said that Mrs. Nelson’s apparel was too tight, revealing, and “distracting.” At times, he asked her to put on a lab coat.  His explanation was: “I don’t think it’s good for me to see her wearing things that accentuate her body.” Mrs. Nelson, however, denied wearing inappropriate clothes.

Despite these issues, the two continued to have a successful work relationship and friendship. They started texting in a friendly way about personal and professional matters.  Comments in the workplace, however, were sometimes sexual, and Dr. Knight acknowledged Mrs. Nelson’s attractiveness. Again, she denied flirting with Dr. Knight or seeking a romantic relationship.

Things came to a head when Dr. Knight was away on a vacation with kids one Christmas, and his wife was home. During the vacation, he texted Mrs. Nelson extensively. When his wife found out about the activity, she asked him to terminate Mrs. Nelson, stating, “[S]he was a big threat to our marriage.” This, coupled with Mrs. Knight’s accusation that Dr. Knight would stay late just to spend time with Mrs. Nelson, was simply too much for her to ignore.

As a result, shortly thereafter, Dr. Knight fired Mrs. Nelson and paid her a severance, stating that her continued employment was a threat to both of their families and against their best interests. Dr. Knight then hired another female dental assistant and business continued.

Mrs. Nelson filed a suit alleging that the termination constituted sex discrimination in violation of Iowa Civil Rights Act.  In essence, she argued that she was fired due to her gender. Had she been male, she argued, she would not have been fired.

Unfortunately for her, the Iowa District Court granted summary judgment in favor of Dr. Knight, and the Supreme Court of Iowa affirmed the decision. The court had the assistance of fairly on-point case law.  In fact, previous courts have held that a termination is allowable on the basis of an employee being a threat to an employer’s familial relationship. These cases left open, however, the question of whether an employee that hadn’t engaged in any flirtatious conduct could similarly be terminated.

The Iowa Supreme Court held that, yes, such an “innocent” employee could indeed be terminated merely for posing a perceived threat to a familial relationship. The court reasoned that it wasn’t Mrs. Nelson’s gender that was the basis of the firing, but instead her conduct. In the words of the concurring opinion, the central distinction is that “[D]ifferential treatment based on an employee’s status as a woman constitutes sex discrimination, while differential treatment on account of conduct resulting from the sexual affiliations of an employee does not form the basis for a sex discrimination claim.” (Italics were added in by the writer of this post.)

It can be quite tricky to separate the two, of course. Cases like these demonstrate that no matter how innocuous an employee’s conduct is, if he or she is perceived to be a threat to a relationship, an employer can probably terminate him or her without running afoul of sex discrimination laws.  As a practical matter, however, avoiding developing more than a nominal personal relationship with an employer is probably the best course of action, in order to prevent the specter of a romantic relationship from ever being raised.

Unless otherwise mentioned, the governing jurisdictions in the above-referenced post are United States jurisdictions.

Chelsea Wilson is the Community Relations Manager for Washington University School of Law’s online LL.M. degree program, @WashULaw, which provides foreign trained attorneys with the opportunity to earn a Masters in Law degree from a top-tier American university from anywhere in the world. Join the @WashULaw Community on Twitter.

Chelsea Wilson
Chelsea Wilson is the Community Relations Manager for Washington University School of Law’s online LL.M. degree program, @WashULaw, which provides foreign trained attorneys with the opportunity to earn a Masters in Law degree from a top-tier American university from anywhere in the world.
Chelsea Wilson

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