Melissa Nelson worked as a dental assistant for James Knight for more than 10 years
The Iowa Supreme Court rules the dentist acted legally when he let her go
Nelson was fired because Knight and his wife felt she was a threat to their marriage
"The court got it absolutely right," says Knight's attorney
It may not be fair, but it’s not illegal – not in Iowa.
Melissa Nelson, a worker fired for being “irresistible” to her boss, spoke out Saturday about a high court decision that said her termination broke no discrimination law.
“The last couple of days have just been an emotional roller coaster. I’m trying to stay strong. It’s tough,” she told CNN’s Don Lemon. “I don’t think it’s fair. I don’t think it’s right.”
Nelson spoke one day after the all-male Iowa Supreme Court ruled on her case. The high court sided with a lower court, ruling that Nelson’s termination did not constitute sex discrimination under the Iowa Civil Rights Act.
She was not fired because of her gender, the court decided, but because her boss and his wife felt Nelson was a threat to their marriage.
Nelson was hired in 1999 as a dental assistant for James Knight. She stayed on at the Fort Dodge business for more than 10 years.
“The court got it absolutely right,” said Stuart Cochrane, Knight’s attorney. He said that for the Iowa Supreme Court to have acted otherwise, it would have had to “ignore every other case we could find” with similar facts.
At first blush, he said, the result might sound bizarre. But Cochrane stressed that if all the facts of the case were known, the court’s decision would seem more fair.
“He and his wife really agonized about it,” Cochrane said about Knight. “He didn’t want to terminate her.”
According to the high court’s decision, Knight complained to Nelson toward the end of her employment that her clothes were tight and “distracting.” Cochrane said Knight asked her repeatedly to dress differently.
Nelson denied that what she wore was out of place, and when asked by CNN’s Lemon whether she dressed appropriately at work, she said she wore scrubs.
At one point, Knight told Nelson that “if she saw his pants bulging, she would know her clothing was too revealing,” the decision read.
At another point, in response to an alleged comment Nelson made about the infrequency of her sex life, Knight responded: [T]hat’s like having a Lamborghini in the garage and never driving it.”
Nelson and Knight, both married with children, also exchanged text messages to each other outside of work. Neither objected to the texting.
But Knight’s wife, who was employed at the same dental office, found out about those messages in late 2009 and demanded he fire Nelson.
In early 2010, he did just that.
In the presence of a pastor, Knight told Nelson that she had become a “detriment” to his family and for the sakes of both their families, they should no longer work together. Knight gave Nelson one month’s severance.
In a subsequent conversation between Knight and Nelson’s husband, Knight said Nelson had done nothing wrong and that “she was the best dental assistant he ever had,” the decision read.
Nelson filed a lawsuit, arguing that Knight fired her because of her gender. She did not contend that he committed sexual harassment.
In response, Knight argued that Nelson was fired because of the “nature of their relationship and the perceived threat” to his marriage, not because of her gender. In fact, he said, Knight only employs women and replaced Nelson with another female worker.
A district court sided with Knight; Nelson appealed.
Framing the issue for the Iowa Supreme Court, Justice Edward M. Mansfield wrote: “The question we must answer is … 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.”
Answering the question, he continued: “The issue before us is not whether a jury could find that Dr. Knight treated Nelson badly. 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. For the reasons previously discussed, we believe this conduct did not amount to unlawful discrimination, and therefore we affirm the judgment of the district court.”