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Dental Assistant Fired For Being “A Big Threat” to Dentist’s Marriage

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Dental Assistant Fired For Being “A Big Threat” to Dentist’s Marriage

I don’t often write about non-Canadian cases, but an interesting one from the Supreme Court of Iowa recently caught my attention. It involved a dentist who – at his wife’s insistence – had essentially fired his dental assistant for being too attractive. The assistant promptly sued (unsuccessfully, it turns out) for gender discrimination.

The 20-year old dental assistant, who was married with children, had worked for the dentist for about 10 years at the time she was let go. The dentist conceded that she was a good assistant. Still, he had fired her because her tight clothing had become “distracting” to him, and their professional relationship was starting to drift into a grey area. During the last six months that she worked, he and the assistant had started texting each other about both work and personal matters; although most of the texts were about everyday matters, a small number originated by the dentist had involved sexual topics. The assistant did not respond to those, but she also did not complain about them.

The dentist’s wife discovered the texting, and she confronted him. Feeling that the assistant “was a big threat” to their marriage, she demanded that the dentist fire her. That solution was endorsed by the senior pastor of their church, whom they consulted.

The dentist did terminate the assistant, and (when confronted) explained to the assistant’s husband that while nothing was currently going on, he feared that he would try to have an affair with her down the road if he did not fire her. She was immediately replaced by another female dental assistant.

The assistant brought a civil rights complaint under Iowa law, claiming discrimination based on gender: she would not have been fired had she been male. The dentist responded that the grounds for her firing were actually the threat to his marriage, not her gender. The lower court dismissed her claim, and she appealed unsuccessfully.

The court considered the fact situation. In the U.S., unlawful gender discrimination does not arise if a female employee such as the dental assistant is fired because her consensual relationship with the dentist causes personal jealousy. Similarly, sexual favouritism (which involves one employee being treated more favourably than other employees of the opposite sex) is not necessarily discriminatory unless it is sexual conduct that prompts the differential treatment, not merely gender.
Here, there had been no sexual harassment. Rather, the dentist had fired the dental assistant at his wife’s urging because of personal reasons related to his marriage; it was not necessarily motivated by factors relating to the assistant’s gender. This did not amount to “gender discrimination” under Iowa law.

It must be pointed out that the law in the U.S. is very different from that of Canada; it would be interesting to see how this case would play out in this country.

For the full text of this U.S. decision, see:

Nelson v. James Knight DDS, No. 11-1857 (Supreme Court of Iowa, Dec. 21, 2012)  http://www.iowacourts.gov/Supreme_Court/Recent_Opinions/20121221/11-1857.pdf
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