IOWA CITY, Iowa (AP) — A dentist acted legally when he fired an assistant because he had grown too attracted to her and worried he would try to start an extramarital 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're motivated by feelings, not gender.
The ruling upholds the 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 asked the court to reconsider its December decision, calling it a blow for gender equity. The all-male court took the unusual step last month of withdrawing its opinion after national publicity and criticism, granting a motion to reconsider for the fifth time in a decade.
In December, the justices ruled 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 Friday and emphasized the ruling's limited scope, noting that Nelson did not bring a sexual harassment 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 didn't support such a claim.
The firing came at the request of Knight's wife, who was concerned about the relationship between Knight and Nelson. The Knights' pastor agreed with the termination and was present when it happened.
Mansfield said the firing might have been bad treatment — and paying her one month's severance was ungenerous — but that it wasn't discrimination. Nelson was replaced by another woman; Knight had an all-female staff.
Nelson's attorney, Paige Fiedler, said it punished women who deal with workplace sexual harassment informally out of a desire to avoid retaliation.
Nelson has said she viewed Knight as a father figure and never sought a romantic relationship. But Cady said the two still had a relationship that went beyond the "reasonable parameters of workplace interaction."