State court: dentist’s attraction to employee grounds for firing

Even in the most obvious cases of sexual harassment or workplace discrimination, employees who have been wronged will need strong legal support to ensure the best outcome in an employment lawsuit. New Yorkers may be interested in a recent ruling in Iowa that found that a dentist was not wrong in firing his employee because she was too attractive.

The case is shocking on a number of levels, and employees throughout the country may want to take note if they believe their co-workers or employers are engaging in sexual harassment or workplace discrimination.

Late last year, the Iowa Supreme Court initially ruled on the employee’s lawsuit, saying that a dentist was within his rights in firing the woman, who had worked at the office for 10 years and had a good employment record. The dentist is reportedly 20 years older than the woman, but his response to the lawsuit called her an “irresistible attraction.”

In an odd move, the high court, all male, decided to revisit the case and ultimately reaffirmed its previous ruling.

The dentist’s wife appears to have played a role in the decision to fire the woman. The dentist and his wife both thought that he might try to have an affair with the employee, and in fact, the wife found text messages sent between her husband and the worker.

In one of the messages, the dentist asked the woman how often she had orgasms. The dentist also frequently talked about the employee’s attractiveness, and he even told her that his pants would bulge if she wore clothing that he imagined was too revealing.

According to the Iowa Supreme Court, terminating the woman was not an act of sexual discrimination because the firing resulted from the dentist’s personal feelings and not from his views on gender or sex.

Of course, this interpretation of the definition of discrimination is up for debate. What is clear is that employees who have been discriminated against or harassed at work should be aware of how a court may distinguish between sexual discrimination and sexual harassment.

Source: The Globe and Mail, “Fired for being too attractive? Iowa court says it’s legal,” Zosia Bielski, July 12, 2013

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