James Knight is a dentist in Fort Dodge, Iowa and a good family man. We know he’s a good family man because he fired his dental assistant of ten years because she was “irresistible” and therefore a threat to his marriage.
No, I’m not making this up. Melissa Nelson had been Dr. Knight’s assistant for just over a decade. For most of that time, there was no problem.
Dr. Knight admits that Nelson was a good dental assistant. Nelson in turn acknowledges that Dr. Knight generally treated her with respect, and she believed him to be a person of high integrity.
Ms. Nelson stated she thought of Knight as “a friend and father figure.” But over the last year and a half of her employment, Knight began to behave in a rather unfatherly way. He complained that her “clothing was too tight and revealing and ‘distracting.’” So distracting in fact, that he was forced to talk to her about it.
Dr. Knight acknowledges he once told Nelson that if she saw his pants bulging, she would know her clothing was too revealing.
On one occasion he texted her after work, stating the shirt she’d worn that day was too tight. When she disagreed, he texted her that…
it was a good thing [she] did not wear tight pants too because then he would get it coming and going.
Ms. Nelson denies any of her work attire was inappropriate in any way. So she was surprised a couple years ago when she was called into Dr. Knight’s office at the end of the workday and was told she was being fired. Knight had the pastor of his church in the office with him, and he read a prepared statement to Ms. Nelson.
The statement said, in part, that their relationship had become a detriment to Dr. Knight’s family and that for the best interests of both Dr. Knight and his family and Nelson and her family, the two of them should not work together.
Then Knight gave her an envelope with a month’s wages and showed her the door. That night her husband (both Knight and Nelson are married and have children; Knight’s wife also works at her husband’s dental office) called Knight, and they arranged to meet. Again, Knight brought the pastor of his church to the meeting.
In the meeting, Dr. Knight told Steve Nelson that Melissa Nelson had not done anything wrong or inappropriate and that she was the best dental assistant he ever had. However, Dr. Knight said he was worried he was getting too personally attached to her. Dr. Knight told Steve Nelson that nothing was going on but that he feared he would try to have an affair with her down the road if he did not fire her.
Seriously. This asshole fired her because he was afraid he’d try to have an affair with her. So she did the reasonable thing. She sued his ass.
Let me interrupt myself and say something about the Iowa Supreme Court. It has a long and venerable history of standing up for civil rights. The very first decision the court issued was In Re the Matter of Ralph (a colored man), in which the court found that a Missouri slave residing in the ‘free territory’ of Iowa could not be returned to his owner — that simply by living in Iowa Ralph was a free man. This was 18 years before the US Supreme Court heard a similar case (Dred Scott) but ruled in favor of the slave owner. This was 22 years before the beginning of the American Civil War.
In 1868, their decision in the case of Clark v. The Board of Directors ruled that racially segregated ‘separate but equal’ schools for children had no place in Iowa’s educational system. It took the US Supreme Court another 85 years to reach the same conclusion in Brown v. Board of Education.
In 1869, when Arabella Mansfield sued the Iowa Bar Association for denying her the right to practice law, the decision by the Iowa Supreme Court made Iowa the first state in the union to admit women to the practice of law.
In 2009 the Iowa Supreme Court unanimously ruled against legislation banning same-sex marriage, making Iowa the fifth state in the union to permit same-sex couples to marry.
The Iowa Supreme Court, when given a chance to stand up for the oppressed, for the marginalized, for the disadvantaged and downtrodden and mistreated, has always made the difficult but right decision. Until now.
Ms. Nelson’s suit argued that she’d been unlawfully terminated because of her gender. She made three main points against Dr. Knight and her termination. She argued that:
any termination because of a boss’s physical interest in a subordinate amounts to sex discrimination: “Plaintiff’s sex is implicated by the very nature of the reason for termination.” Second, she suggests that without some kind of employee misconduct requirement, Dr. Knight’s position becomes simply a way of enforcing stereotypes and
permitting pretexts: The employer can justify a series of adverse employment actions against persons of one gender by claiming, “My spouse thought I was attracted to them.” Third, she argues that if Dr. Knight would have been liable to Nelson for sexually harassing her, he should not be able to avoid liability for terminating her out of fear that he was going to harass her.
In effect, Melissa Nelson’s position was that she didn’t do anything to get herself fired except to exist as a woman.
And the Iowa Supreme Court? It dismissed her suit. It ruled in favor of Dr. Knight. Despite the fact that everybody involved agrees Ms. Nelson did nothing wrong, it ruled in favor of Knight. Despite the fact that the Court itself referred to “Dr. Knight’s unfair decision to terminate Nelson (while paying her a rather ungenerous one month’s severance)” they ruled in his favor.
Why? Because her termination from employment wasn’t “based on gender itself” but was a decision “driven entirely by individual feelings and emotions regarding a specific person.” Their ruling was apparently grounded in the notion that there were several other women working in Dr. Knight’s office, and he didn’t fire them. He only fired the woman he was afraid he’d try to sleep with. She wasn’t fired because of her gender, according to the court, but was apparently fired because she was smoking hot. And that, I guess, is okay.
It should be noted, though, that of the seven judges who voted to overturn Iowa’s ban on gay marriage, only one remains on the bench. The others were replaced after Republicans raised massive amounts of money to defeat them. This is now an all-male court in which the majority of the judges were appointed by a Republican governor. So maybe I shouldn’t be so surprised.