OK for Dentist to Fire Object of Desire

flossIn a small office, an employee often has no where to go  when she is mistreated by an employer.

The perils of this predicament are amply demonstrated in a recent ruling by the Supreme Court of Iowa.

The all-male Court  ruled that a dentist did not violate sex discrimination laws when he fired his long-time dental assistant because he (and his wife) was afraid he would have an affair with her.

The  Court upheld a lower court’s grant of summary judgment  in the case of Nelson v. Knight, No. 11–1857 (Dec. 21, 2012). This means the Court concluded  there was absolutely no way a jury could decide against Dentist James H. Knight and hold in favor of his assistant, Melissa Nelson.  Therefore, the case was dismissed before  trial.

Knight said he fired  Nelson, who had worked for him for ten years,  after his wife insisted that Nelson had to go. He gave Nelson one month’s severance.

 Knight admits that on several occasions he asked Nelson to put on a lab coat because her clothing was too tight, revealing and “distracting.”  Nelson denied that her clothing was tight or in any way inappropriate and said she complained to Knight at one point that his criticism was unfair.

 Nelson also recalls that  Knight once texted her to ask how often she experienced an orgasm. Nelson did not answer the text. The Court found it significant that  Nelson did  not remember ever telling  Knight not to text her or telling him that she was offended.

 When Knight’s wife found out that her husband and Nelson had been  texting each other, she confronted her husband and demanded that he terminate Nelson’s employment.  The Court finds it significant that Knight and his wife  consulted with the senior pastor of their church, who agreed with the decision.

After the firing, Knight told Nelson’s husband 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.

Nelson charged that Knight had discriminated against her on the basis of sex in violation of the Iowa Civil Rights Act. She contended that she would not have been fired if she were male. Nelson did not raise the issue of sexual harassment.

 The Court states in its decision that the question  to be decided 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.”   In this case, the Court held that  Knight’s decision was driven by individual feelings and emotions regarding a specific person. The Court concluded Knight’s decision was not gender-based or based on factors that might be a proxy for gender.

The Court states that an employer does not violate sex discrimination laws by ” treating an employee unfairly so long as the employer does not engage in discrimination based upon the employee’s protected status.”

 The Court did concede that it might be possible to infer that gender was an issue if an employer repeatedly took adverse employment actions against persons of a particular gender because of alleged personal relationship issues.

 So if  Knight repeatedly fires future assistants because he thinks he might want to have an affair with them, or if Knights’ wife demands that he fire future assistants because she thinks he might want to have an affair with them,  presumably a Court could find discrimination  on the basis of sex.

Meanwhile, Melissa Nelson is unemployed, with one month’s severance.

This may not come as a surprise to some readers but, according to the Court’s web site, there are no women justices on the Iowa Supreme Court. The seven justices are Chief Justice Mark S. Cady, David S. Wiggins, Daryl L. Hecht, Brent R. Appel, Thomas D. Waterman, Edward Mansfield and Bruce Zager.  Justice Mansfield wrote the opinion.

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