The Iowa Supreme Court issued a more expansive ruling on Friday of a unanimous decision issued in December that a Webster County dentist who fired an attractive female employee because his wife was afraid they would have an affair acted within the scope of the law, according to the Des Moines Register.
According to the Court’s summary of the case, Melissa Nelson had been hired in Dr. James Knight’s office as a dental assistant in 1999, where she worked for over ten and a half years. Over the course of her tenure there, Knight testified that Nelson often wore tight and revealing clothing that he defined as “distracting.” During the last six months of her employment, the two began texting one another on work and personal matters. Nelson, who is married and had two children, denied she was flirting with Knight or sought a sexual relationship with him and instead said she thought of him as a “father figure.”
Dr. Knight acknowledges he once told Nelson that if she saw his pants bulging, she would know her clothing was too revealing. On another occasion, Dr. Knight texted Nelson saying the shirt she had worn that day was too tight. After Nelson responded that she did not think he was being fair, Dr. Knight replied that it was a good thing Nelson did not wear tight pants too because then he would get it coming and going. Dr. Knight also recalls that after Nelson allegedly made a statement regarding infrequency in her sex life, he responded to her, “[T]hat’s like having a Lamborghini in the garage and never driving it.” Nelson recalls that Dr. Knight once texted her to ask how often she experienced an orgasm. Nelson did not answer the text. However, Nelson does not remember ever telling Dr. Knight not to text her or telling him that she was offended.
In 2009, Knight’s wife discovered Nelson and her husband had been exchanging text messages while Knight had taken the children to Colorado on Christmas vacation. When Knight returned home, his wife, Jeanne, demanded that Nelson be fired from the practice because she was a “big threat” to the couple’s marriage. The summary explained that “Both of them consulted with the senior pastor of their church, who agreed with the decision.”
Knight fired Nelson at the end of the workday on January 4, 2010, and read from a prepared statement in which he explained their relationship had become a “detriment” to his family and that her employment should not continue. He later replace Nelson with another female dental assistant and, according to the Court’s summary, “all of his dental assistants have been women.”
Friday’s ruling reiterated December’s decision to side with Knight, “We ultimately conclude the conduct does not amount to unlawful sex discrimination in violation of the Iowa Civil Rights Act. We emphasize the limits of our decision. The employee did not bring a sexual harassment or hostile work environment claim; we are not deciding how such a claim would have been resolved in this or any other case.”
In a concurring opinion issued Friday by Chief Justice Mark Cady, he wrote, “In the final analysis, this court has carefully considered the issue presented and has sought to understand its complexity with the seriousness and attention demanded of all cases. Research has failed to uncover any appellate court in the nation that has recognized sex discrimination under facts similar to those in this case, and it has failed to identify any state legislature that has defined sex discrimination to include adverse employment consequences from a consensual personal relationship.”
He then went on to challenge the legislature or Congress to take the issue up if they disagree: “If, in fact, Congress or our legislature intended for adverse employment consequences from consensual personal relationships between employers and employees to be protected as sex discrimination, these legislative bodies can clarify or change the law to reflect such intent.”
When the Court issued its initial ruling in December, Nelson’s attorney Paige Fiedler issued a statement to ABC News affiliate KCRG: “We are appalled by the Court’s ruling and its failure to understand the nature of gender bias,” she wrote at the time.
“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,” Fiedler said in the statement. “Nearly every woman in Iowa understands this because we have experienced it for ourselves.”
Kay Steiger is the managing editor of Raw Story. Her contributions have appeared in The American Prospect, The Atlantic, Campus Progress, The Guardian, In These Times, Jezebel, Religion Dispatches, RH Reality Check, and others. You can follow her on Twitter @kaysteiger.
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