High court affirms prior ruling

The Iowa Supreme Court has ruled – again – that a Fort Dodge dentist was within his legal rights to fire a longtime female employee because he believed her continued employment was a threat to his marriage.

The court, which has reconsidered its past opinions only five times in the last decade, had ruled in December 2012 that Dr. James Knight acted legally when he fired Melissa Nelson in January 2010.

Nelson filed a lawsuit against Knight in August 2010, alleging the dentist fired her because of her gender and would not have terminated her if she was a male. She did not allege sexual harassment.

In its initial ruling, the Supreme Court said Nelson was fired not because of her gender but because she posed a threat to Knight’s marriage. In January, Nelson’s attorney, Paige Fiedler, asked the court to reconsider.

“It was a great decision,” said Knight’s attorney, Stuart Cochrane. “I don’t see this as necessarily different from their first decision, but I’m impressed with the court’s effort to clearly communicate the rationale for the decision.

“They went to great lengths to evaluate the legal and factual issues that were presented. I think the court wanted to make very clear what this decision was and that it wasn’t an invitation to treat employees illegally. What it was, very clearly, is that the facts did not rise to the level of sexual discrimination,” Cochrane said.

He also said Chief Justice Mark Cady, of Fort Dodge, in particular, “really wanted to provide as much detail” as possible to explain the court’s rationale and to make clear that the decision was in line with existing law.

In the court’s 32-page response, which cited numerous examples of case law, “They went to tremendous lengths to evaluate the legal and factual issues that were presented,” Cochrane said.

Fielder’s office said she was not taking calls from the media, who were being referred to Jamie Buelt, a co-owner of en Q strategies, a Des Moines-based public relations firm.

Buelt released this statement from Fielder late Friday afternoon: “I am beyond distressed at the lack of awareness and understanding this decision demonstrates. Women already have to balance on the very fine line of being respected, professional and well-liked in the workplace without having their perceived charm or attractiveness garner unwanted sexual advances, harassment and discrimination.”

Fielder said the situation was similar to when a rapist holds a weapon, that it is “usually safer for the woman not to fight back.”

This, she said, is also true of sexual harassment.

“Up until now, courts were the only thing standing in the way of employers like Knight getting away with violating the civil rights of their employees. Now men can protect themselves from sexual harassment claims simply by firing women they’ve been harassing,” said Fiedler.

Justice Edward Mansfield in Friday’s decision, wrote that the court was emphasizing “the limits of our decision.” Nelson, he said, didn’t bring a sexual harassment or hostile work environment claim, which might have been resolved differently.

In 1999, Nelson was hired by Knight to work as a dental assistant, and Knight has admitted she was good at her job. However, during the last year and a half of her employment, Knight had complained to Nelson that her clothing was too tight and distracting. She testified that she put on a lab coat whenever Knight complained to her about her clothing.

During the last months of her employment, Knight and Nelson started texting each other on work and personal matters outside the workplace. Both parties initiated texting and neither objected to the other’s texting.

At one point, according to the court, Knight recalled that after Nelson allegedly made a statement regarding infrequency in her sex life, he responded that it would be “like having a Lamborghini in the garage and never driving it.”

Nelson, the court said, does not remember ever telling Knight not to text her or telling him that she was offended.

In late 2009, Knight took his children on vacation and his wife, Jeanne Knight, who also works in the dental office, stayed home. She found out that her husband and Nelson were texting each other during that time. She confronted her husband and insisted he fire Nelson “because she was a big threat to our marriage,” Jeanne Knight was quoted as saying, according to the court ruling.

Nelson was replaced by a woman; Knight employs only women.

Cady agreed with the opinion issued Friday, but wrote separately in a concurrance joined by two other justices, that the facts didn’t support Nelson’s claim.

Cady wrote “while the loss of a job is often devastating to an employee, and at times unfair, these considerations do not play a role under (Iowa’s) employment-at-will doctrine.”

He also wrote that undisputed facts in the case included:

A consensual personal relationship existed between Knight and Nelson, who communicated with each other outside the workplace on matters not related to their work;

Their relationship was personal and closer that the relationships Knight maintained with the other employees; and

Knight acknowledged that he grew attracted to Nelson and that these feelings were stronger than hers. “Yet, during a frustrating moment involving a co-employee, Nelson confided in Dr. Knight that he was the reason she continued to work at the office. She also acknowledged she maintained a closer relationship with Dr. Knight than he maintained with the other employees …”

Additionally, Cady wrote, Nelson acknowledged that a co-worker believed she flirted with Knight, which Nelson attributed to her belief that the other woman was jealous of “the close relationship” she had with the dentist.

The communications between Nelson and Knight were marked by sexual overtones that “revealed a relationship that was much different than would reasonably be expected to exist between employers and employees in the workplace.”

“Research has failed to uncover any appellate court in the nation that has recognized sex discrimination under facts similar to those in this case, and it has failed to identify any state legislature that has defined sex discrimination to include adverse employment consequences from a consensual personal relationship,” Cady wrote.

“This case,” he wrote, “simply lacked the facts to establish discrimination.”