Sunday, December 23, 2012

Irresistible Attraction Force Meets Immovable Spousal Object

A case out of the Iowa Supreme Court has generated an unwarranted amount of attention this weekend.  The opinion is noteworthy mainly because it highlights the lines drawn between legitimate at-will and illegal employment decisions that discriminate against a protected group because of that group's status.

The facts--an attractive dental assistant was fired after more than 10 years of good work performance because she was considered by her boss, and more importantly the boss's wife, as a threat to his marriage   Specifically, he terminated the assistant's employment after his wife, who was suspicious of the employee already, discovered they were texting suggestively, and the dentist himself believed that he might eventually have an affair with the woman.  The assistant sued, claiming gender discrimination.

The Iowa Supreme Court got the case after the lower court granted summary judgement for the employer dentist  and affirmed the lower court's decision   The Court noted that the basis for the termination was not the plaintiff's gender, but her threat to the relationship between the dentist and his wife.  The fact that there would not have been a threat if the assistant had been male misses the point, said the Court.  The issue is whether gender was the basis for the decision--it was not.  The employer wins, 7-0.

There have been a number of commentators saying how unfair it is that someone could get fired because they were "too attractive."  But that is exactly the lesson of at-will employment.  An employee can be fired for any reason that is not protected by a federal or state statute.  Fairness really isn't the issue--the Court here took a silly and purely gratuitous shot at the employer for not giving the employee more severance pay, but that didn't affect its opinion.You can be fired because you are an impediment to a boss having an affair with another person, and you can be fired because people think you are having an affair with the boss  Those decisions don't have a gender-based motivation.  Of course, you can't be fired legally for personally refusing to have an affair with the boss--that would be quid pro quo sexual harassment, a particular form of gender discrimination 

It's obviously better not to find yourself in a situation like this, but it's a better result if you recognize that there could be a harassment problem coming down the track, and preempt it, rather than letting things get to the full, hostile work environment stage.

Important safety tip--this case arose in the context of a single termination--I suspect the result would have been different if the wife demanded and got the termination of every woman working in the office.  A mass female firing would have raised at least an inference of gender-based decision making, and would have been actionable.

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