Notes on a Theory…

Thoughts on politics, law, & social science

Just Cause Laws are Civil Rights Law

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A recent case from Iowa has caused a great deal of discussion, and it illustrates an important larger point.

A dentist acted legally when he fired an assistant that he found attractive simply because he and his wife viewed the woman as a threat to their marriage, the all-male Iowa Supreme Court ruled Friday.

The court ruled 7-0 that bosses can fire employees they see as an “irresistible attraction,” even if the employees have not engaged in flirtatious behavior or otherwise done anything wrong. Such firings may be unfair, but they are not unlawful discrimination under the Iowa Civil Rights Act because they are motivated by feelings and emotions, not gender, Justice Edward Mansfield wrote.


Nelson, 32, worked for Knight for 10 years, and he considered her a stellar worker. But in the final months of her employment, he complained that her tight clothing was distracting, once telling her that if his pants were bulging that was a sign her clothes were too revealing, according to the opinion.

He also once allegedly remarked about her infrequent sex life by saying, “that’s like having a Lamborghini in the garage and never driving it.”

Most Americans don’t realize, I’d wager, that employers can pretty much fire you for whatever they want. Civil rights laws place a small number of exceptions to this broad power (as does federal labor law, although this is easily evaded in part because the penalties are so weak in comparison to civil rights laws).  But outside of these limits*, every state except Montana is an at will employment state, meaning a boss can fire an employee for any reason or no reason at all.  The outrage many are expressing is a product not only of that power being abused by a man who should take responsibility for himself rather than blaming the female employee (as the plaintiff’s lawyer said “These judges sent a message to Iowa women that they don’t think men can be held responsible for their sexual desires and that Iowa women are the ones who have to monitor and control their bosses’ sexual desires”) but also of ignorance of just how backward American employment law is.

As numerous people have noted, this is a perfect example of the kind of workplace tyranny that some on the left have been trying to emphasize. I agree, but I wanted to add something else. Civil rights laws have had an important impact in improving the status of women and people of color.  But to allow employers plenary, unchecked, completely arbitrary power over firing and then create narrow exceptions, the former is going to impinge on the latter.  I think most of us feel that firing someone because they are a woman, or African-American (or because they are gay, despite the fact that  in most states and at the federal level that is not covered by civil rights laws) is deeply wrong, in particular.  But basic fairness, I’d say, suggests an employer should at least offer a legitimate reason and that there should be at least some bit of due process before someone can lose their livelihood.

Anytime we find ourselves collectively expressing our outrage, I try to think about what the values are that underlie our opposition to something. For me, it’s two fold. Civil rights protections can be easily undermined through wooden interpretation, and this will happen in otherwise at will system. They are too important, and the values on the other side of the ledger are to my mind slight.

Beyond that, if your livelihood must depend on having a job, then your job cannot depend on the whim of an employer. It’s that simple.

*Importantly, unions also place limits on this power through collective bargaining.

Written by David Kaib

December 22, 2012 at 1:59 pm

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