Knight’s lawyer: Behavior led to Nelson’s firing

A Fort Dodge dental assistant whose firing has attracted national attention lost her job because of her behavior and not because her mere presence made her irresistible, according to the attorney for the dentist who once employed her.

The attorney, Stuart Cochrane, of Fort Dodge, said the full facts of the situation involving Melissa Nelson and Dr. James Knight haven’t become public because a lawsuit she filed never came to trial.

The situation gained national notoriety after the Iowa Supreme Court justices voted unanimously last month to uphold the action of a district court judge who dismissed Nelson’s lawsuit.

Cochrane spoke exclusively to The Messenger recently after Nelson made a series of national media appearances. Knight and his wife, Jeanne, declined to speak to the newspaper, but Cochrane said they had authorized him to make a public statement.

”The message they would like to get across is that she was not terminated because she was – quote – ‘irresistible,”’ he said.

”It was clearly her conduct that got her terminated, and the conduct being her flirtatious behavior,” he added. ”And also, she chose to develop a personal relationship with him.”

Watching Nelson repeatedly tell her version of events has been ”exhausting” for the Knights, according to the attorney.

He said he doesn’t believe Knight’s Fort Dodge dental practice has been hurt by the situation.

”He’s had a tremendous amount of support, both personally and professionally,” he said.

James Knight hired Nelson in 1999. The situation that led to her dismissal developed over the last year and a half, according to Cochrane and the Supreme Court’s 16-page ruling.

Cochrane said Nelson began wearing tight, low-cut shirts to work. He said James Knight directed her to wear more appropriate clothing, but she didn’t comply.

”She’s made a lot of mileage out of a claim that she always wore her scrubs,” the attorney said. ”Well, that quite frankly is just untrue.”

He said that in depositions, other women who worked in the office said that Nelson did not wear scrubs every day and was known to wear clothing considered inappropriate for the workplace.

He added that in a deposition, Nelson acknowledged that James Knight directed her to wear other clothing to work.

Nelson and James Knight also engaged in some suggestive text messages and conversations.

”The reality is they both initiated texting and conversation,” Cochrane said. ”I will grant he said some things that he should not have in that context. He made some comments trying to be cute or funny.”

He said there was an ”ongoing dialog where she’s initiating frequent discussions about her sex life.”

According to Cochrane, in a deposition Nelson said James Knight never said anything offensive to her.

In the Supreme Court opinion, Justice Edward M. Mansfield wrote that Nelson did not remember ever telling James Knight not to send text messages to her and telling him that she was offended.

According to the Supreme Court ruling, Jeanne Knight insisted that her husband fire Nelson. Her reasons for that demand, according to the ruling, included the text messages, Nelson’s clothing, her flirting with the dentist, her alleged coldness toward Jeanne Knight at the office, and Nelson’s ongoing criticism of another dental assistant.

”The reality is he fired her because he and his wife decided that having her there was not good for their marriage,” Cochrane said. ”And that is not gender discrimination. Clearly, she was not terminated because of her gender. Every other person that works there has always been a woman. She was replaced by a woman.”

Nelson was fired on Jan. 4, 2010.

She sued James Knight in Webster County District Court on Aug. 8, 2010.

In late 2011, Cochrane asked District Court Judge Thomas Bice for a summary judgment that would throw out the lawsuit. He said in a summary judgment case, the court reviews all the facts in a way that is most favorable to the plaintiff and determines if their lawsuit has any chance of succeeding at trial.

After considering the facts, Bice dismissed the case.

Early last year, Nelson, represented by attorneys Paige Fiedler and Emily McCarthy of Urbandale, appealed Bice’s decision to the Supreme Court.

On Dec. 21, 2012, the justices issued a ruling upholding Bice’s action.

”The Iowa Supreme Court has really, really taken an unjust beating on this ruling,” Cochrane said. ”What they’ve done is what we all expect them to do – apply and interpret the law.”

Nelson’s attorneys have asked the justices to reconsider their ruling. A response from the high court is expected in 30 to 60 days.