One of the wilder stories from the judicial branch to cross our desk in some time popped up this weekend. Our tale takes place in an Iowa dentist’s office, where an attractive, married woman works as a dental assistant. After ten years on the job providing what the dentist himself described as “stellar” performance, she was fired because she was too attractive and represented a threat to the owner’s marriage. There was no affair. There was no allegation of an affair. But the dentist’s wife also worked there and, after discovering some personal (not sexual) text messages between the two, she wanted the woman gone. The assistant went to court claiming unjust termination. There’s no way that one holds up, right? Wrong.
A dentist acted legally when he fired an assistant that he found attractive simply because he and his wife viewed the woman as a threat to their marriage, the all-male Iowa Supreme Court ruled Friday.
The court ruled 7-0 that bosses can fire employees they see as an “irresistible attraction,” even if the employees have not engaged in flirtatious behavior or otherwise done anything wrong. Such firings may be unfair, but they are not unlawful discrimination under the Iowa Civil Rights Act because they are motivated by feelings and emotions, not gender, Justice Edward Mansfield wrote.
An attorney for Fort Dodge dentist James Knight said the decision, the first of its kind in Iowa, is a victory for family values because Knight fired Melissa Nelson in the interest of saving his marriage, not because she was a woman.
Someone I frequently turn to when I need to understand the byzantine maze of the legal system, Dr. James Joyner, seems to feel that this was pretty much the correct call.
As weird and embarrassing as this case is, it’s a reasonable decision in the narrow case of a sole proprietorship. Should the boss be able to work with women he finds attractive and resist crossing boundaries of professionalism? Sure. But, if it’s his shop, he should have the right to remove the temptation.
This obviously becomes more problematic in a larger firm, especially when the supervisor isn’t also the owner. In those cases, asking for reassignments or just moving on to another firm are more appropriate solutions. But that’s unreasonable if it’s your firm.
I suppose that’s why I’m not a lawyer, since this simply doesn’t make any sense. But I don’t want to confuse the right to manage your own business with the need to provide a sensible justification here. The dentist is the business owner and proprietor as well as the service provider. He has the right to operate his business as he sees fit, and employers generally don’t have to provide all that much of a reason for terminating employment beyond saying, “this just isn’t working out.”
But in this case he felt compelled to provide a reason, turning what would have otherwise been just one of millions of cases of a worker getting laid off into a national media circus. Reading the full article, it sounds a lot less like he wanted to terminate the assistant himself, but was forced into it by threats from his wife. This sounds stunningly unprofessional, but was it illegal? I suppose that question has been answered now. But “being too attractive” as a reason to be discharged from your job still just sounds wrong. (Not that I’ll ever be in danger of falling into that particular trap, of course.)