The Paramour’s Predicament: Does Firing an Attractive Employee Due to Spousal Jealousy Constitute Sex Discrimination?

Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and similar state statutes, guarantee protection against sex discrimination in the employment context. “Because of sex” in current jurisprudence, however, has often been interpreted exceedingly narrowly and excluded several seemingly viable claims. Part of this issue is attributable to sex’s dubious inclusion under the statute. One example arises with personal relationships between employers and employees in the workplace that, for various reasons, fail and lead to the termination of the employee.

The current approach does not recognize any personal relationships as being connected to the victim’s sex and thus exclude sexual discrimination claims arising from them, sometimes leading to absurd results in the courtroom. This Article focuses on one such example, the Iowa Supreme Court case of Nelson v. Knight, where an attractive female dental assistant was terminated after unrequited sexual advances and her boss’s professed “irresistible attraction” aroused jealousy in the boss’s wife who ordered that she be fired. Melissa Nelson’s claim for sexual discrimination under the Iowa Civil Rights Act was dismissed.

Using this case as a framework, this Article argues for a new approach by synthesizing current law to evaluate a subset of personal relationship claims based on employer attraction and spousal jealousy. When these factors influence the employer to terminate an employee, it should be recognized as a decision on the basis of sex. Under this Article’s proposal, such issues placed in the employment context are the result of sexually motivated animus and should amount to impermissible discrimination.