The all-male Iowa Supreme Court surprised the nation late last week when it ruled unanimously that a woman could be fired, even though she had done nothing wrong, because her boss was too attracted to her.
The case involved a 32-year-old woman who had worked as an assistant in a dental office for about 10 years. Both she and the dentist were married with children, and they often discussed their home and family issues with each other. The only problems in their employment relationship appear to have been entirely his -- and his wife's.
Unbeknownst to his wife, who also worked in the office, the 53-year-old dentist was apparently becoming more and more attracted to the assistant, and he was evidently willing to bring up the subject.
For example, he told the woman that her clothes were distractingly tight -- and according to the court opinion, he told that she would know when her clothes were too tight by the bulge in his pants.
At some point, the woman had admitted to her boss that she and her husband didn't have a very active sex life. His response? "[T]hat's like having a Lamborghini in the garage and never driving it."
The dentist and his assistant also traded text messages, which were not flirtatious. In fact, the idea that she might flirt with a boss 20 years older than she was never occurred to the woman.
When the dentist's wife found out, however, she demanded that the younger woman be fired. To make sure of their decision, the couple consulted with their pastor, who agreed.
The assistant didn't think her boss's behavior had ever risen to an extreme level, so she did not sue him for sexual harassment. Instead, she sued him for gender discrimination and wrongful termination. After all, she pointed out, she wouldn't have been fired if she were a man.
The trial court, and now the Iowa Supreme Court found no evidence of gender discrimination. This was at-will employment, and the motive for the firing wasn't gender-related but to protect his marriage.
This case is not quite as shocking as it seems. It is important to realize that plaintiffs have to prove that discrimination or another unlawful purpose was the motive for the negative employment action they experienced. That said, the Iowa courts do seem to be out of step with actual experience.
"These judges sent a message to Iowa women that they don't think men can be held responsible for their sexual desires," said the woman's attorney. "If they get out of hand, then the woman can be legally fired for it."
Source: Huff Post Business, "Bosses Can Fire Hot Workers For Being 'Irresistible': All-Male Court," Ryan J. Foley, Dec. 21, 2012
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