Iowa’s all-male Supreme Court recently affirmed the lower court’s ruling in favor of a male employer who fired a female employee whom he found attractive.
Dr. James Knight terminated Melissa Nelson, Knight’s dental assistant of more than 10 years, in 2010. Nelson, a married mother, posed a threat to Knight’s marriage, according to Knight, whose wife instructed him to terminate Nelson. The assistant was fired for being too “irresistible.”
Nelson told CNN that the termination stunned her and that she didn’t believe it was fair. Nelson’s attorney said that her client’s termination shows sex discrimination.
“Although people act for a variety of reasons, it is very common for women to be targeted for discrimination because of their sexual attractiveness or supposed lack of sexual attractiveness. That is discrimination based on sex,” Paige Fiedler wrote.
Knight’s attorney contended that the dentist acted for the betterment of his family.
“Dr. Knight felt like for the best interest of his marriage and the best interest of hers to end their employment relationship,” Stuart Cochrane said.
Cochrane said that the Knights sought guidance from a local pastor. The pastor was present when Nelson was fired. She received a month’s severance pay.
“Our position has always been Mrs. Nelson was never terminated because of her gender. She was terminated because of concerns her behavior was not appropriate in the workplace. She’s an attractive lady. Dr. Knight found her behavior and dress to be inappropriate,” Cochrane said.
In that regard, “the court got it absolutely right,” according to the attorney.
Cochrane said that if the Iowa Supreme Court reacted differently, it would have had to ignore every other factually similar case they could find.
Knight and Nelson had begun exchanging text messages outside of work about professional and personal matters. The dentist reportedly asked Nelson how often she received an orgasm.
According to court documents, the two never began or pursued a sexual relationship, although Knight commented that Nelson’s clothing was distracting.
“Dr. Knight acknowledges he once told Nelson that if she saw his pants bulging, she would know her clothing was too revealing,” the justices wrote.
Nelson, who said she wore scrubs to work, reported being upset by her termination and its implications. She alluded to the unanimous ruling establishing a sexist precedent.
“I think it is completely wrong,” Nelson said. “I think it is sending a message that men can do whatever they want in the work force.”
“The issue before us is not whether a jury could find that Dr. Knight treated Nelson badly,” Justice Edward M. Mansfield wrote.
“We are asked to decide only if a genuine fact issue exists as to whether Dr. Knight engaged in unlawful gender discrimination when he fired Nelson at the request of his wife …. We believe this conduct did not amount to unlawful discrimination, and therefore we affirm the judgment of the district court.”