This week the Iowa Supreme Court ruled that a dentist was within his rights to fire his female assistant for no other reason than what he described as her “irresistible attractiveness.”
The all-male Iowa Supreme Court ruled Friday that the firing of Melissa Nelson was lawful and not discriminatory. According to ABC News, her employer, Dr. James Knight, said he “feared he would have an affair with her down the road if he did not fire her.”
According to CNN, Melissa Nelson was a dental assistant for Dr. James Knight for ten years before her termination in 2010. Prior to that, all parties involved testified she was a model employee who also enjoyed a long-standing relationship with Dr. Knight’s family. Both the dentist and his own attorneys confirmed Nolan’s dismissal had nothing to do with any performance-related shortcomings on her part.
Instead, court papers state that in 2009, Dr. Knight began making sexually-charged comments towards Nolan, including one where she was instructed that “if she saw his pants bulging, she would know her clothing was too revealing." Nolan denied her clothing was ever inappropriate, explaining in her own testimony, “I wore scrubs.”
Eventually, Dr. Knight, his wife, and their pastor decided that in order to protect the Knight's marriage, Nelson's employment should be terminated.
The Associated Press reports that upon receiving the news, Nelson was stunned because she viewed the 53-year-old Knight as a father figure and was never interested in starting a relationship.
It seems to be a case of discrimination, but the court ruled that in this instance, “gender discrimination” couldn’t be proven under the Iowa Civil Rights Act.
According to Iowas Supreme Court Justice Edward M. Mansfield, “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. The motives behind Dr. Knight terminating Mrs. Nelson were quite clear: He did so to preserve his marriage.”
And yet, what Mrs. Nelson described in her testimony seems a clear-cut case of sexual harassment on the part of her boss. He made remarks referencing his own genitalia in response to the site of her, sent her a text message asking about her orgasm frequency, and told her it was a waste that she didn’t have sex more frequently. Why these instances weren’t legally deemed as inappropriate and constituting sexual harassment on the dentist’s part remains a point of confusion, especially for the prosecution.
Nelson’s attorney, Paige Fiedler said in her public response to the verdict, "We are appalled by the Court’s ruling and its failure to understand the nature of gender bias. Although people act for a variety of reasons, it is very common for women to be targeted for discrimination because of their sexual attractiveness or supposed lack of sexual attractiveness. That is discrimination based on sex...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. If they get out of hand, then the women can be legally fired for it."
If it’s accurate to say that the Iowa Civil Rights Act has no provisions to protect innocent employees from the sexual machinations of their employers, than perhaps it’s time that it be ratified.
Mrs. Nelson, through no fault of her own, lost her livelihood, and men in Iowa can now place the blame on the targets of their harassment because this legal precedence has just granted them permission. Much like in instances of sexual assualt, until the responsibility is placed on the perpetrators, instead of on the victims, the cycle won't ever be stopped.
Do you think the ruling was fair? Let us know what you think in the Comments.