Sexual Harassment: Nelson v. James H. Knight DDS, P.C., 11-1857 (Iowa 2012)

Issue: Whether termination of a female employee because the employer’s wife, due to no fault of the employee, is concerned about the nature of the relationship between the employer and the employee constitutes sex discrimination in violation of the Iowa Civil Rights Act.

Facts: Plaintiff, Melissa Nelson (“Nelson”) was employed as a dental assistant in Defendant James Knight’s (“Knight”) dental office for over 10 years. On several occasions during the last year and a half, Knight complained to Nelson that her clothing was too tight and “distracting.” During the last six months of Nelson’s employment, Knight and Nelson began texting each about both work and personal matters. According to Nelson, most texts were relatively innocuous but were sexual in nature on at least one occasion. Nelson also testified that Knight made sexually suggestive comments to her at the workplace. However, she denied flirting with him or seeking an intimate relationship with him. Knight’s wife also worked at the office. When she learned about the text messages, she demanded Knight fire Nelson because of Nelson’s behavior and stating Nelson was, “a big threat to our marriage.” After consulting a family pastor, Knight terminated Nelson’s employment. Nelson sued alleging her termination was unlawful sex discrimination under the Iowa Civil Rights Acts. Nelson did not allege hostile work environment or sexual harassment. Knight moved for Summary Judgment, which was granted by the district court.

Holding: The Iowa Supreme Court affirmed the district court’s decision finding Nelson was fired because she was a threat to the employer’s marital relationship, not because of her gender. Thus, an employee who has not engaged in flirtatious conduct may be lawfully terminated because an employer views the employee as an “irresistible attraction.”

For a complete copy of the Court’s opinion, click here

Slander: Huyser v. Lynch, No. 11-1577 (Iowa Ct. App. 2012)

Issue: Whether evidence of loss or harm to reputation must be shown to justify an award of damages in slander per se cases.

Facts: Appellants, John D. Lynch and Mary Lynch, admitted to making slanderous statements to a minor child, of whom John Lynch is the father, about the child’s mother, Appellee Shaefen Huyser. The slanderous statements included statements that constitute slander per se under Iowa. Appellants argued that the Appellee did not present evidence of loss and thus was not entitled to a jury verdict for damages.

Holding: Slander per se is actionable without proof of harm to reputation; however, damages may not be awarded based solely on the defamatory statements. Recovery is limited to the natural and probable consequences of the publication and may include recovery for emotional distress and resulting bodily harm.

For a complete copy of the Court’s opinion, click here