Just as Dorothy in the Wizard of Oz found herself no longer in Kansas, Melissa Nelson found herself in Iowa where she was terminated by her male boss for being “too attractive.”
Melissa should consider moving to California.
Melissa Nelson worked for dentist James Knight for over 10 years. She was a stellar employee and apparently considered Dr. Knight to be “a friend and a father figure.”
Dr. Knight apparently considered Nelson a friend as well, good enough that he complained to her that her clothing was too tight and revealing and “distracting.”
As he so eloquently put it, “I don’t think it’s good for me to see (Melissa) wearing things that accentuate her body.”
Dr. Knight and Nelson occasionally texted, even when away from work. In fact, that’s when Dr. Knight’s wife Jeanne, who is also an employee of the dental practice, discovered her husband and Nelson texting while he and his kids were on vacation in Colorado.
After consulting with her pastor, Jeanne Knight insisted that her husband fire Melissa Nelson. Mrs. Knight considered Nelson “a big threat to her marriage.”
Mrs. Knight made clear her feelings: “Melissa liked to hang around after work when it would be just her and (my husband) there. I thought it was strange that after being at work all day and away from her kids and husband that she would not be anxious to get home like the other (women) in the office.”
FIRING OF ASSISTANT
At the end of the work day on January 4, 2010, Dr. Knight called Nelson into his office and read her a statement that she was fired and that he was doing so in the best interests of he and his family and she and her family.
Nelson’s husband afterward met with Dr. Knight who admitted he was worried he was getting too personally attached to Melissa and he feared he would try to have an affair with her “down the road if he did not fire her.” But of course.
SEXUAL DISCRIMINATION LAWSUIT
Melissa Nelson sued Dr. Knight for discriminating against her on the basis of her gender. Curiously, she did not sue for hostile work environment or sexual harassment.
Nelson claimed Dr. Knight would not have terminated her if she was male. Dr. Knight claimed Nelson was fired not because of her gender but because she was a threat to his marriage.
The Iowa trial court agreed with Dr. Knight. Melissa Nelson appealed and the case made it to the Iowa Supreme Court.
(Normally the Law Review features California law; however we occasionally feature breaking-news, and progressive out-of-state cases when they present themselves.)
IOWA SUPREME COURT
Let’s cut to the chase and quote the Iowa Supreme Court’s opening paragraph in the Opinion: “Can a male employer terminate a long-time female employee because the employer’s wife, due to no fault of the employee, is concerned about the nature of the relationship between the employer and the employee?”
Here is the Court’s answer: “It is now well recognized that employment decisions cannot be predicated on mere ‘stereotyped’ impressions about the characteristics of males or females … discrimination because one fails to act in the way expected of a man or woman is forbidden under Title VII … If Nelson could show that she had been terminated because she did not conform to a particular stereotype, this might be a different case. But the record here does not support that conclusion. It is undisputed, rather, that Nelson was fired because Jeanne Knight, unfairly or not, viewed her as a threat to her marriage. … We believe this conduct did not amount to unlawful discrimination.”
There you have it. We’re not in Kansas and we’re surely not in California where I dare say the outcome would have been different.
Jim Porter is an attorney with Porter Simon licensed in California and Nevada, with offices in Truckee and Tahoe City, California, and Reno, Nevada. He was the Governor’s appointee to the California Fair Political Practices Commission involving election law and the Political Reform Act. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or at the firm’s website www.portersimon.com. Find us on Facebook.