Quantcast
Get breaking news alerts via email

Click here to manage your alerts
Iowa court: Bosses can fire ‘irresistible’ workers
First Published Dec 21 2012 09:23 pm • Last Updated Dec 21 2012 09:24 pm

Iowa City, Iowa • A dentist acted legally when he fired an assistant that he found attractive simply because he and his wife viewed the woman as a threat to their marriage, the all-male Iowa Supreme Court ruled Friday.

The court ruled 7-0 that bosses can fire employees they see as an "irresistible attraction," even if the employees have not engaged in flirtatious behavior or otherwise done anything wrong. 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, not gender, Justice Edward Mansfield wrote.

Join the Discussion
Post a Comment

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 Melissa 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 that women see routinely in the workplace.

"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," said attorney Paige Fiedler. "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 that he worried he was getting too personally attached and feared he would eventually try to start an affair with her.

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.


story continues below
story continues below

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.

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."



Copyright 2014 The Salt Lake Tribune. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Top Reader Comments Read All Comments Post a Comment
Click here to read all comments   Click here to post a comment


About Reader Comments


Reader comments on sltrib.com are the opinions of the writer, not The Salt Lake Tribune. We will delete comments containing obscenities, personal attacks and inappropriate or offensive remarks. Flagrant or repeat violators will be banned. If you see an objectionable comment, please alert us by clicking the arrow on the upper right side of the comment and selecting "Flag comment as inappropriate". If you've recently registered with Disqus or aren't seeing your comments immediately, you may need to verify your email address. To do so, visit disqus.com/account.
See more about comments here.
Staying Connected
Videos
Jobs
Contests and Promotions
  • Search Obituaries
  • Place an Obituary

  • Search Cars
  • Search Homes
  • Search Jobs
  • Search Marketplace
  • Search Legal Notices

  • Other Services
  • Advertise With Us
  • Subscribe to the Newspaper
  • Login to the Electronic Edition
  • Frequently Asked Questions
  • Contact a newsroom staff member
  • Access the Trib Archives
  • Privacy Policy
  • Missing your paper? Need to place your paper on vacation hold? For this and any other subscription related needs, click here or call 801.204.6100.