PICTURED: The assistant Melissa Nelson fired by dentist because she was 'irresistably attractive' and 'threat to his marriage'
An Iowa dentist acted legally in firing a long-time assistant because he - and his wife - viewed the married mother as a threat to their marriage, the all-male Iowa Supreme Court ruled Friday.
The court ruled 7-0 bosses can sack employees they see as an 'irresistible attraction,' even if they have not engaged in flirtatious behavior or otherwise done anything wrong.
Appearing on CNN Friday night, assistant Melissa Nelson said the decision was deeply unfair.
Hello ladies: Despite Nelson being 21 years younger than him, married, and 'not interested in a relationship,' Knight believed it would be too hard not to start an affair with her
'I don't think this is fair,' she said from her Iowa home by phone. 'I don't think this is right.'
Such firings may be unfair, but they are not unlawful discrimination under the Iowa Civil Rights Act because they are motivated by feelings and emotions, and not gender, Justice Edward Mansfield wrote.
An attorney for Fort Dodge dentist James Knight said the decision, the first of its kind in Iowa, is a victory for family values because Knight fired Nelson in the interest of saving his marriage, not because she was a woman.
But Nelson's attorney said Iowa's all-male high court, one of only a handful in the nation, failed to recognize the discrimination women see routinely in the workplace.
Nelson insisted she was never interested in Knight romantically, regardless of his own feelings.
'Absolutely not,' she said. 'I'm happily married.'
While her former boss claimed her clothes were so tight he couldn't look at her without being aroused, Nelson said the only outfit she wore to work was standard scrubs worn by many nurses and assistants in dental offices.
Asked if she saw herself as irresistibly attractive, Nelson laughed at the question.
'I'm just an ordinary girl,' she said. 'Just an ordinary mom.'
Also appearing via call-in, her attorney, Paige Fiedler, said it was unlikely they would seek an appeal because of the way the case was filed as only interpreting state law.
'These judges sent a message to Iowa women that they don't think men can be held responsible for their sexual desires and that Iowa women are the ones who have to monitor and control their bosses' sexual desires,' Fielder said. 'If they get out of hand, then the women can be legally fired for it.'
Nelson, 32, worked for Knight for 10 years, and he considered her a stellar worker. But in the final months of her employment, he complained that her tight clothing was distracting, once telling her that if his pants were bulging that was a sign her clothes were too revealing, according to the opinion.
He also once allegedly remarked about her infrequent sex life by saying, 'that's like having a Lamborghini in the garage and never driving it.'
Knight and Nelson — both married with children — started exchanging text messages, mostly about personal matters, such as their families. Knight's wife, who also worked in the dental office, found out about the messages and demanded Nelson be fired. The Knights consulted with their pastor, who agreed that terminating Nelson was appropriate.
Knight fired Nelson and gave her one month's severance. He later told Nelson's husband he worried he was getting too personally attached and feared he would eventually try to start an affair with her.
Family man: Knight's wife, who also works in the dental office, demanded Nelson be fired when she discovered text messages
Ordinary mom: Nelson has been working as a waitress since she lost her dental job and is unsure of her future career path
Nelson was stunned because she viewed the 53-year-old Knight as a father figure and had never been interested in starting a relationship, Fiedler said.
Nelson filed a lawsuit alleging gender discrimination, arguing she would not have been terminated if she was male. She did not allege sexual harassment because Knight's conduct may not have risen to that level and didn't particularly offend her, Fiedler said.
Knight argued Nelson was fired not because of her gender, but because her continued employment threatened his marriage. A district judge agreed, dismissing the case before trial, and the high court upheld that ruling.
Mansfield noted that Knight had an all-female workforce and Nelson was replaced by a woman.
He said the decision was in line with state and federal court rulings that found workers can be fired for relationships that cause jealousy and tension within a business owner's family. One such case from the 8th Circuit Court of Appeals upheld a business owner's firing of a valued employee who was seen by his wife as a threat to their marriage. In that case, the fired employee had engaged in flirtatious conduct.
Jurisprudence: Justice Edward Mansfield penned the Iowa Supreme Court's decision on Knight's dismissal of Melissa Nelson
Mansfield said allowing Nelson's lawsuit would stretch the definition of discrimination to allow anyone fired over a relationship to file a claim arguing they would not have been fired but for their gender.
Knight's attorney, Stuart Cochrane, said the court got it right. The decision clarified that bosses can make decisions showing favoritism to a family member without committing discrimination; in this case, by allowing Knight to honor his wife's wishes to fire Nelson, he said.
Knight is a very religious and moral individual, and he sincerely believed that firing Nelson would be best for all parties, he said.
'While there was really no fault on the part of Mrs. Nelson, it was just as clear the decision to terminate her was not related to the fact that she was a woman,' he said. 'The motives behind Dr. Knight terminating Mrs. Nelson were quite clear: He did so to preserve his marriage.
'I don't view this as a decision that was either pro-women or opposed to women rights at all. In my view, this was a decision that followed the appropriate case law.'
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