The all-male Supreme Court of Iowa has upheld its earlier decision that a dentist did not discriminate when he fired his long-time dental hygienist whom he found to be an irresistible attraction.
In its decision, the Court focused upon the purported reason that the dentist fired the hygienist, rather than the dentist’s behavior.
The Court said the legal question it must decide was: “Can a male employer terminate a long-time female employee because the employer’s wife, due to no fault of the employee, is concerned about the nature of the relationship between the employer and the employee?”
The Court concluded that Dr. James H. Knight did nothing illegal when he fired hygienist Melissa Nelson because Knight’s wife insisted that he do so – not because of sex discrimination.
The Court upheld the firing last December but agreed to reconsider the case after a the ruling was widely criticized. (Ms. Nelson appeared in a skit lampooning the decision on Comedy Central.) At that time, this blog observed that employees often have little protections against discriminatory behavior when the employer is the boss.
Even though Knight admitted that the alleged threat to his marriage would not have existed if Nelson were male, the Iowa Court said the record did not support a conclusion that Knight took an adverse employment action against Nelson “because of a gender-specific characteristic.”
Nelson, who worked for Knight, for about ten years, alleged he violated the Iowa Civil Rights Act because she would not have been fired if she had been male.
The Court said Knight’s motive for firing Nelson was his desire to allay his wife’s concerns over Nelson’s “perceived” threat to their marriage. “The civil rights laws seek to insure that employees are treated the same regardless of their sex or other protected status … , Dr. Knight’s unfair decision to terminate Nelson (while paying her a rather ungenerous one month’s severance) does not jeopardize that goal,” said the Court.
Nelson, who was 20 when she began working for Knight in 1999, denied ever flirting with Knight and said she considered him to be a friend and father figure.
During the last year and a half of her employment, Knight began making sexual comments to her. Among other things, he complained that her clothing was too tight and asking her to put on a lab coat. Knight acknowledged he told Nelson that “if she saw his pants bulging, she would know her clothing was too revealing.”
Nelson and Knight began texting during the last six months of Nelson’s employment. Knight admits he asked her how often she experienced an orgasm. The Court found it significant that Nelson, who did not answer the text, “does not remember ever telling Dr. Knight not to text her or telling him that she was offended.”
Knight’s wife, Jeanne, discovered that Knight and Nelson were texting and demanded that he terminate Nelson’s employment because Nelson “was a big threat to our marriage.”
In both of its rulings the Court upheld a pre-trial ruling by a lower court judge, who granted Knight’s request for summary judgment in Nelson v. Knight, No. 11–1857 (Dec. 21, 2012).. Thus, the Court has twice concluded that there is absolutely no way that a jury could legally decide against Knight and hold in favor Nelson. The Court’s holding means that there will be no trial in the case.
The Court notes that Nelson, did not file a sexual harassment lawsuit. or allege a hostile work environment.