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