July 12, 2013 at 2:18 PM ET
A dentist acted legally when he fired a longtime assistant because he had grown too attracted to her and worried he would try to start an affair, the Iowa Supreme Court reaffirmed Friday in its second crack at the controversial case.
Coming to the same outcome as it did in December, but clarifying its rationale, the court found that bosses can fire employees that they and their spouses see as threats to their marriages. The court said such firings do not count as sex discrimination because they are motivated by feelings, not gender.
The ruling upholds a judge's dismissal of a discrimination lawsuit filed by Melissa Nelson against James Knight. The Fort Dodge dentist fired the 33-year-old Nelson — two decades his junior — after his wife learned of text messages between the two. The married mother of two had worked for Knight for 10 years, and he considered her his best assistant.
Nelson's attorney, Paige Fiedler, had asked the court to reconsider its December decision, calling it a blow for gender equity in the workplace. The all-male court took the unusual step last month of withdrawing its opinion, granting a motion to reconsider for just the fifth time in the last decade.
In December, the justices said the key issue was "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." Justice Edward Mansfield removed that language from Friday's opinion and emphasized the ruling's scope was limited, noting that Nelson did not bring a sexual harassment or hostile work environment claim.
He said that firing workers because of gender-specific characteristics such as their looks can violate their civil rights, but that the facts in Nelson's case did not support such a claim.
The firing came at the request of Knight's wife, who was concerned about the relationship between Knight and Nelson. Mansfield said the firing might have been bad treatment — and paying her one month's severance was ungenerous — but that it was not gender discrimination. Nelson was replaced by another woman; Knight had an all-female staff.
Chief Justice Mark Cady added a concurrence Friday, joined by two other justices, to further explain the court's rationale.
"Nelson was terminated because of the activities of her consensual personal relationship with her employer, not because of her gender," he wrote.
Nelson has said she viewed Knight as a father figure and never sought a romantic relationship with him. Cady said that may be true, but that they still had a relationship that went beyond the "reasonable parameters of workplace interaction."
Cady said Nelson once told Knight that she wasn't having much sex and he responded, "That's like having a Lamborghini in the garage and not ever driving it." The dentist had also texted her asking how often she experienced orgasms (she did not respond) and complained that her body distracted him at work, once telling her that if she saw his pants bulging, that was a sign her clothes were too revealing. Knight also gave Nelson more favorable treatment than other workers, and she once texted him that she continued working there "because of you," he noted.
Knight's attorney, Stuart Cochrane, said he was thoroughly impressed with Friday's decision. He said justices wanted to make clear the ruling was limited to the facts of one lawsuit and could not be used as cover for firing employees based on discriminatory reasons.
Cochrane said the court "over and over" noted that Nelson was fired because of a consensual workplace relationship, and that long-established case law in Iowa and elsewhere found similar decisions weren't sex discrimination.
"This is a case where the court is recognizing that every single case it can find, even remotely on point, has reached the same conclusion that this is not discrimination based on gender," he said. "In this decision as opposed to the earlier decision, the court really spent a tremendous amount of time and energy making sure they clearly communicated that fact."
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