Business Q&A: Appearance discrimination claims can prove viable lawsuits

McAfee & Taft's Josh Solberg discusses how claims about appearance or perceived impairments could lead to discrimination lawsuits.
Oklahoman Modified: August 8, 2013 at 10:00 pm •  Published: August 7, 2013
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Q&A with Josh Solberg

Appearance discrimination claims

can lead to viable court action

Q: A dental assistant in Iowa recently made headlines when she sued her former employer for wrongful termination and discrimination. Many news outlets ran wild with headlines claiming she was fired for being “too hot.” Was this a case of unlawful sex discrimination?

A: In Nelson v. James H. Knight DDS, P.C., the Supreme Court of Iowa said no. In the end, the court found the reason for the dental assistant's firing had less to do with appearance and more to do with jealousy and concern from the dentist's spouse, who viewed the assistant as a big threat to their marriage and demanded her husband terminate the assistant's employment. While the dentist admitted to finding the assistant's appearance “distracting” — he even complained to her as much — there were no claims by the dental assistant of sexual harassment or a hostile work environment or other indications that the termination was unlawful sex discrimination.

Q: So, could an employee sue — and win — for appearance discrimination?

A: Potentially. In fact, the same Iowa court that ruled the dental assistant was not unlawfully fired over jealousy concerns opined that she may have been able to win her lawsuit if she could have proved her termination was based on stereotypes related to the characteristics of her gender — in that specific case, her attractiveness.

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by Paula Burkes
Reporter
A 1981 journalism graduate of Oklahoma State University, Paula Burkes has more than 30 years experience writing and editing award-winning material for newspapers and healthcare, educational and telecommunications institutions in Tulsa, Oklahoma...
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