Simply Irresistible: Terminating the Irresistible Attraction

Spouses who work together experience the rewards and challenges that 24 hour contact brings. One of the challenging parts occurs when the husband works closely with other females.  In Nelson v. Knight, the Iowa Supreme Court addressed the issue of whether it is sex discrimination for a male employer to terminate a female employee because the employer's wife, through no fault of the employee, is concerned about the nature of the relationship, i.e. jealously.  The court answered that it was not discrimination.

The plaintiff was a dental assistant who, by all reports, was an excellent employee for over 10 years.  The case was brought under Iowa law.  Over the years, the dentist had made some suggestive/inappropriate remarks, but there was no claim of sexual harassment.  The dentist and employee had engaged in texting for over 6 months, but the nature of the texting was not of a sexual nature.  Indeed, the employee viewed the dentist as a friend and father figure.  The wife found out about the texting and demanded that the employee be fired.  The couple consulted with their pastor who agreed with the decision to terminate the employee.

The court reviewed the grant of summary judgment and rejected the claim of gender discrimination.  The court stated that the issue confronting it dealt with the termination of an employee who had not engaged in flirtatious conduct but was terminated simply because she was viewed as "an irresistible attraction."
The court concluded that the goal of civil rights laws is to insure that employees are treated the same regardless of sex or other protected status.  Though unfair, a termination by the dentist was not unlawful.  A female replacement was hired. The record is undisputed that the employee was fired because the dentist's wife viewed her as a threat to her marriage.

So, would the employee be better off under Michigan law?  No.  The cases addressing similar issues have rejected the claim of sex discrimination.  In Barrett v. Kirtland Community College, the Michigan court of appeals rejected a claim by a male employee who had asked a female employee for a date at the time she was dating the individual defendant, who was the plaintiff's immediate supervisor.  The plaintiff claimed retaliation, gender discrimination, breach of FMLA, and breach of contract.  With respect to the sex discrimination claim, the court stated that interpreting the statute's prohibition of sex discrimination to include claims of jealousy would turn the statute on its head.  It is beyond reason to conclude that the plaintiff's status as the romantic competition places plaintiff within the group of persons sought to be protected.  Plaintiff's gender was no the impetus for any illegal conduct but was rather merely coincidental to such conduct.

In Corley v. Detroit Bd. of Ed., the Michigan Supreme Court entered a per curiam order involving a claim brought by a female employee whose romantic relationship with a supervisor ended when he became involved with a co-worker.  The claim was based on the supervisor's warning not to interfere with the relationship and threats of consequences if she did.  The Court stated that the communication did nothing more than communicate the supervisor's personal animosity, and that the statute does not forbid "the communication of enmity" between romantic rivals.  The connection between sex and the alleged conduct was missing and therefore the threshold requirement was not met.

The issue in these cases should not be confused with the issue of discrimination because of appearance. Here, the issue is one of jealously and in the case of the dentist, removing the temptation.  Not fair but not discrimination.

For additional Labor and Employment law insights from John Holmquist, visit the Michigan Employment Law Connection.

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