IOWA CITY, Iowa — A dentist acted legally when he fired an assistant because he had grown too attracted to her and worried he would try to start an extramarital affair, the Iowa Supreme Court reaffirmed Friday in its second crack at the controversial case.
Coming to the same outcome as it did in December, but clarifying its rationale, the court found that bosses can fire employees that they and their spouses see as threats to their marriages. The court said such firings do not count as sex discrimination because they’re motivated by feelings, not gender.
The ruling upholds the dismissal of a discrimination lawsuit filed by Melissa Nelson against James Knight. The Fort Dodge dentist fired the 33-year-old Nelson — two decades his junior — after his wife learned of text messages between the two. The married mother of two had worked for Knight for 10 years, and he considered her his best assistant.
Nelson’s attorney asked the court to reconsider its December decision, calling it a blow for gender equity. The all-male court took the unusual step last month of withdrawing its opinion after national publicity and criticism, granting a motion to reconsider for the fifth time in a decade.
In December, the justices ruled the key issue was “whether an employee who has not engaged in flirtatious conduct may be lawfully terminated simply because the boss views the employee as an irresistible attraction.” Justice Edward Mansfield removed that language Friday and emphasized the ruling’s limited scope, noting that Nelson did not bring a sexual harassment claim.
He said that firing workers because of gender-specific characteristics such as their looks can violate their civil rights, but that the facts in Nelson’s case didn’t support such a claim.
The firing came at the request of Knight’s wife, who was concerned about the relationship between Knight and Nelson. The Knights’ pastor agreed with the termination and was present when it happened.
Mansfield said the firing might have been bad treatment — and paying her one month’s severance was ungenerous — but that it wasn’t discrimination. Nelson was replaced by another woman; Knight had an all-female staff.
Chief Justice Mark Cady added a concurrence Friday, joined by two other justices, to further explain the court’s rationale.
“Nelson was terminated because of the activities of her consensual personal relationship with her employer, not because of her gender,” he wrote.
The decision failed to silence critics.
Nelson’s attorney, Paige Fiedler, said it punished women who deal with workplace sexual harassment informally out of a desire to avoid retaliation.
Nelson has said she viewed Knight as a father figure and never sought a romantic relationship. But Cady said the two still had a relationship that went beyond the “reasonable parameters of workplace interaction.”
Cady said Nelson once told Knight that she wasn’t having much sex and he responded, “That’s like having a Lamborghini in the garage and not ever driving it.” The dentist texted her asking how often she experienced orgasms (she didn’t respond) and complained that her body distracted him at work, once telling her that if she saw his pants bulging, that was a sign her clothes were too revealing. Knight also gave Nelson more favorable treatment than other workers, and she once texted him that she continued working there “because of you,” he noted.
Fiedler said she was horrified that Cady called Nelson’s behavior consensual, saying her client did not embrace Knight’s come-ons. She said the male justices didn’t understand the reality of being a woman in the workplace, saying they appeared fixated on Knight’s difficult position with his wife but not on Nelson’s plight.
“Melissa’s life will never be the same after this experience: She has lost her profession and endured great emotional distress— all because her boss didn’t think he would be able to control himself,” Fiedler said. “While Melissa is sad for herself and her family, she is even more upset at the way this decision will affect the rights of countless Iowa women to participate in the workplace on a fair and equal footing with men.”
But Knight’s attorney, Stuart Cochrane, said he was impressed with Friday’s decision. He said justices wanted to make clear the ruling was limited to the facts of one lawsuit and could not be used as cover for firing employees based on discriminatory reasons.
Cochrane said the court repeatedly noted that Nelson was fired because of a consensual workplace relationship, and that long-established case law in Iowa and elsewhere found that did not amount to discrimination.
“In this decision as opposed to the earlier decision, the court really spent a tremendous amount of time and energy making sure they clearly communicated that fact,” he said.