Court Won’t Waver on Firing of Pretty Woman

     (CN) – Though it came under fire for saying that a dentist properly fired his assistant for being too attractive, the all-male Iowa Supreme Court refused Friday to reconsider.
     “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 32-page opinion asks in its first paragraph.
     Yes, he can, Justice Edward Manfield wrote for the all-male court.
     Dr. James Knight fired Melissa Nelson on Jan. 4, 2010, after working together for over 10 years. The doctor had arranged for a pastor from his church to observe the sacking, and Nelson was given an “ungenerous” one-month severance pay, the court noted. Nelson, who was 20 when Knight hired her in 1999, says she viewed the doctor as a father figure and never sought a romantic relationship and never flirted with him.
     According to court records, Knight agreed with that and likewise never sought a relationship with Nelson. Problems started when Knight’s wife, who also worked in the office, found the two exchanging text messages outside of work and demanded Knight fire Nelson because “she was a big threat to our marriage.”
     Both parties claimed that the texts were not romantic in nature.
     Nelson sued Knight claiming her firing was based on her gender in violation of Iowa’s Civil Rights Act.
     After a Webster County judge gave Knight summary judgment, the state’s all-male high court unanimously affirmed in December 2012. It subsequently allowed for a rehearing of that decision but affirmed its original ruling Friday.
     While the firing was unfair, it was not unlawful discrimination because it was motivated by feeling and emotions, rather than gender, the court found.
     “As we have indicated above, the issue before us is not whether a jury could find that Dr. Knight treated Nelson badly,” Mansfield wrote. “We are asked to decide only if a genuine fact issue exists as to whether Dr. Knight engaged in unlawful gender discrimination when he fired Nelson at the request of his wife.”
     Though none of the judges dissented with the decision, three judges held in a concurring opinion that Nelson had valid claims that they believed were not supported by the evidence.
     “It is abundantly clear that a woman does not lose the protection of our laws prohibiting sex discrimination just because her employer becomes sexually attracted to her, and the employer’s attraction then becomes the reason for terminating the woman once it, in some way, becomes a problem for the employer,” Chief Justice Mark Cady wrote for these judges.
     Nelson nevertheless developed a relationship with her boss that “extended well beyond the workplace,” Cady added.
     Elaborating, Cady wrote that “the communication between Nelson and Dr. Knight included comments by Dr. Knight that were marked by sexual overtones. … One evening after texting her about the tight shirt she wore to work that day, he followed up with another text message indicating it was good that her pants were also not too tight because he would ‘get it coming and going.’ Another time, in response to a comment regarding the relative infrequency of her sexual activity, Dr. Knight told Nelson, ‘That’s like having a Lamborghini in the garage and not ever driving it.’ Dr. Knight also once texted Nelson to ask how often she experienced orgasms. While these comments would commonly be viewed as inappropriate in most any setting and, for sure, beyond the reasonable parameters of workplace interaction, they nevertheless were an undeniable part of the consensual personal relationship enjoyed by Nelson and Dr. Knight. The banter, at least, revealed a relationship that was much different than would reasonably be expected to exist between employers and employees in the workplace.”

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