Debonding: Iowa Supreme Court Rules Dentist Can Fire Assistant Due To An “Irresistible Attraction”

121223010629-nr-lemon-dental-assistant-fired-00001202-story-topIt appears that “debonding” is now both a permissible legal as well as dental procedure. The Iowa Supreme Court handed down a controversial ruling on Friday that a dentist, Fort Dodge Dr. James Knight, could fire an assistant due to an “irresistible attraction.” Melissa Nelson was fired because Knight and his wife viewed her as a threat to their marriage. Justice Edward Mansfield wrote for a unanimous court that such a firing does not violate the Iowa Civil Rights Act even if the employee does not engage in flirtatious behavior.

Knight’s lawyer called the ruling a victory for family values.

In her lawsuit, Nelson claimed gender discrimination rather than sexual harassment.

The opinion offers the following background information:

On several occasions during the last year and a half when Nelson worked in the office, Dr. Knight complained to Nelson that her clothing was too tight and revealing and “distracting.” Dr. Knight at times asked Nelson to put on her lab coat. Dr. Knight later testified that he made these statements to Nelson because “I don’t think it’s good for me to see her wearing things that accentuate her body.” Nelson denies that her clothing was tight or in any way inappropriate. During the last six months or so of Nelson’s employment, Dr.Knight and Nelson started texting each other on both work and personal matters outside the workplace. Neither objected to the other’s texting. Both Dr. Knight and Nelson have children, and some of the texts involved updates on the kids’ activities and other relatively innocuous matters. Nelson considered Dr. Knight to be a friend and father figure, and she denies that she ever flirted with him or sought an intimate or sexual relationship with him.

Dr. Knight acknowledges he once told Nelson that if she saw his pants bulging, she would know her clothing was too revealing. On another occasion, Dr. Knight texted Nelson saying the shirt she had worn that day was too tight. After Nelson responded that she did not think he was being fair, Dr. Knight replied that it was a good thing Nelson did not wear tight pants too because then he would get it coming and going. Dr.Knight also recalls that after Nelson allegedly made a statement regarding infrequency in her sex life, he responded to her, “[T]hat’s like having a Lamborghini in the garage and never driving it.” Nelson recalls that Dr. Knight once texted her to ask how often she experienced an orgasm. Nelson did not answer the text. However, Nelson does not remember ever telling Dr. Knight not to text her or telling him that she was offended.

What is astonishing is that Nelson, 32, worked for Knight for 10 years and had an unblemished record. Both Nelson and Knight, 53, were married with children. Knight’s wife also worked in the office and discovered that Nelson and Knight were sending personal messages about their families. The wife demanded that Nelson be fired and the couple consulted with their minister who agreed that Nelson had to go.

Knight is described as a deeply religious man, though his communications to Nelson do not speak of religiosity or restraint in a pious man. Indeed, he comes across as pretty creepy. I always thought that religion taught the pious to resist temptation not eradicate its sources. Yet, Knight actually fired Nelson with a pastor present:

At the end of the workday on January 4, 2010, Dr. Knight called Nelson into his office. He had arranged for another pastor from the church to be present as an observer. Dr. Knight told Nelson he was firing her, reading from a prepared statement. The statement said, in part, that their relationship had become a detriment to Dr. Knight’sfamily and that for the best interests of both Dr. Knight and his family and Nelson and her family, the two of them should not work together. Dr. Knight handed Nelson an envelope which contained one month’sseverance pay. Nelson started crying and said she loved her job

The Court relied on various decisions, particularly a decision out of the Eighth Circuit that sexual tension or jealously could be a based for termination:

Several cases, including a decision of the United States Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit, have found that an employer does not engage in unlawful gender discrimination by discharging a female employee who is involved in a consensual relationship that has triggered personal jealousy. This is true even though the relationship and the resulting jealousy presumably would not have existed if the employee had been male.Tenge v. Phillips Modern Ag Co., like the present case, centered on a personal relationship between the owner of a small business and a valued employee of the business that was seen by the owner’s wife as a threat to their marriage. 446 F.3d 903, 905–06 (8th Cir. 2006). In that case, unlike here, the plaintiff had pinched the owner’s rear. Id. at 906. She admitted that the owner’s wife “could have suspected the two had an intimate relationship.” Id. Further, the plaintiff acknowledged she wrote“notes of a sexual or intimate nature” to the owner and put them in a location where others could see them. Id. In the end, the owner fired the plaintiff, stating that his wife was “making me choose between my best employee or her and the kids.” Id.Reviewing this series of events, the Eighth Circuit affirmed the summary judgment in favor of the defendants. Id. at 911. The Eighth Circuit first noted the considerable body of authority that “ ‘sexual favoritism,’ where one employee was treated more favorably than members of the opposite sex because of a consensual relationship with the boss,” does not violate Title VII. Id. at 908–909. The court distilled that law as follows: “[T]he principle that emerges from the above cases is that absent claims of coercion or widespread sexual favoritism, where an employee engages in consensual sexual conduct with a supervisor and an employment decision is based on this conduct, Title VII is not implicated because any benefits of the relationship are due to the sexual conduct, rather than the gender, of the employee.” Id. at 909.

I find the basis for the decision disturbing. It is hard to see where the line between such “family values” and discrimination is drawn. It would seem an easy thing to just attribute the firing to sexual tensions. The Court noted such difficulties in a rather unpersausive passage:

Nelson raises a legitimate concern about a slippery slope. What if Dr. Knight had fired several female employees because he was concerned about being attracted to them? Or what if Ms. Knight demanded out of jealousy that her spouse terminate the employment of several women? The short answer is that those would be different cases. If an employer repeatedly took adverse employment actions against persons of a particular gender because of alleged personal relationship issues, it might well be possible to infer that gender and not the relationship was a motivating factor.

This could easily be read as a type of “one-free-bite rule” for sexual harassment or discrimination. On the other hand, we have discuss the tension in business that often hire for looks from television to bars (here and here and here). This is not such a business, however. Under this logic, a dentist could presumably refuse to hire any woman who was attractive to shield himself from temptation. What do you think?

here is the opinion.

Source: CNN

42 thoughts on “Debonding: Iowa Supreme Court Rules Dentist Can Fire Assistant Due To An “Irresistible Attraction”

  1. What do you think?

    **********************
    I think it’s a crazy decision but it does lend itself to a great song and video so it’s got that going for it:

  2. “Iowa Sup. Ct. rules man can fire woman for being too hot (thank the rel. rt.)
    12/22/2012 10:00am by John Aravosis

    Abominable. And brought to you by the National Organization for Marriage, America’s anti-gay bigots in the religious right, and our very own Republican party. They replaced three Iowa Supreme Court justices because they ruled in favor of gay marriage, and therefore had to be destroyed and replaced with far-right religious right nuts.

    As a result, the Iowa Supreme Court just ruled that men can fire women for being too hot. And, what’s worse, it’s actually a family values kind of thing, firing women for being “too hot,” because that way take away the temptation for adultery.” American Blog. Seven right wing GOP men advancing their war on women.

  3. On a more serious note, here’s an exceprt from the opinion:

    At the end of the workday on January 4, 2010, Dr. Knight called Nelson into his office. He had arranged for another pastor from the church to be present as an observer. Dr. Knight told Nelson he was firing her, reading from a prepared statement. The statement said, inpart, that their relationship had become a detriment to Dr. Knight’s family and that for the best interests of both Dr. Knight and his family and Nelson and her family, the two of them should not work together. Dr. Knight handed Nelson an envelope which contained one month’s severance pay. Nelson started crying and said she loved her job.

    Seems religion-based personnel decisions were confirmed by religion-based jurisprudence. Welcome to the conjoining of church and state in Iowa.

    It’s not just a bad decision; it’s a warning.

  4. It is sad to say but based on the about discussion it would seem that some, if not all, men simply should not be permitted to leave their homes without a female companion to monitor and control their environment to assure that they are not exposed to any experiences that might unleash uncontrollable urges. Some, if not all, Men should not be allowed to work with the public as they seem to be afflicted with a disease that destroys any capacity they may have to control urges that might destroy their families. It is hoped that scientists now working on suit or other item of clothing that might act as a restrain that can be worn by men so that they can be returned to productive employment in an open society. Tests need to be done to determine if this problem is genetic or caused by a virus or bacterial infection. Until this is determined it must be assumed that any man may become victim of this debilitating disease.

    Extreme, I know but why is it that women must be punished because men are so deficient in self control that the mere sight of a woman will cause them to run from their wives and families. This Iowa court decision is one more step along the line of accepting that in the US men are weak, feckless and unable to control themselves and that as a result women must be excluded from the work place and separated from men to protect men from themselves. Does this sound familiar? Think Saudi Arabia, Afganistan…
    Thank you Iowa Supreme Court for such a “family friendly values”decision.
    One other comment, how does this dentist work with female patients or interact with women in public? He sounds like a dangerous man to me.

  5. Dentist and wife went to their minister.

    Surely Shirley, being a Man of God, he said to the dentist:
    “And if thine eye offend thee, pluck it out, and cast it from thee: it is better for thee to enter into life with one eye, rather than having two eyes to be cast into hell fire.”

    Or maybe they have modified teaching in his church:
    I suggest: “And if thine eye offend thee, by making thee horny, it is not thy fault or sinful. It is whatever that makes thee horny that is sinful.
    Cast it out of thy dental practice.
    I say to thee, be not content with casting it out.
    Get thee a barring order from the court, preventing that sinful thing from approaching anywhere whithin 5 leagues of whatever place in which thee might be.”

  6. In a related story, the king of Swaziland has decreed that women who wear miniskirts and low cut pants are to blame if they are raped. It is not the men’s fault for raping them because the women chose to wear the clothes.

  7. What that whiney wimpy immature selfish little man needs is debonering, not debonding.
    .

    Building a conspiracy onto Justice’s post…

    ” Does this sound familiar? Think Saudi Arabia, Afganistan…”
    This is an example of how Sharia Law is being stealthily imposed on the USA by Barack Hussein the socialist terrorist Obama. Blame the women for the inadequacy, immaturity and weakness of men.

  8. My thoughts are in line Justice Holmes who said far better than I.

    Must be his marriage isn’t all that great if it can be threatened by an associate. Maybe his wife worked for him before they were married and knows where his workday thoughts go.

  9. I don’t think it’s useful to ignore the reality that emotional attachments in the workplace can have a negative impact on family life whether they are ever acted on. In another situation, it would be easy to say that the person finding it difficult or impossible to control his or her feelings should be the one to find another job or assignment. However, that would not be a possibility assuming a typical office set up. If the dentist’s feelings for his employee are really impacting his relationship with his wife, should the law require that he either close his practice or remain in the situation? (Even if not illegal, it does seem the minimal severance and way it was handled does not put him in a very good light)

  10. Nick Spinelli, that was cute but dumb. As Big Mamma Thornton said:

    Some likes ’em tall and yella,
    Some likes ’em short an brown,
    but do it make a difference, when the light’s turned down?
    Oh baby, don’t you want a gal like me?
    Who know how to make love to you, baby,
    Well I can show you…my degree.

  11. Didn’t know that they had ‘hot women’ in Iowa (joking). This story should be titled: “It is still cheaper to keep her (in this case both the wife and the worker).”

  12. If the dentist’s feelings for his employee are really impacting his relationship with his wife, should the law require that he either close his practice or remain in the situation? (Even if not illegal, it does seem the minimal severance and way it was handled does not put him in a very good light)

    Justice and decency should oblige him to at minimum continue to pay her full wages – leave of absence on full pay – until such time as she has been established in an equivalent job locally.
    His inadequacy deprived her of an income. It will also have disrupted her life in very many ways.
    The fault appears to be entirely his own.

  13. Very succinctly this man is a creep and his wife has every reason to doubt the strength of his marriage bonds. The exchanges he had from this woman were a “pas de deux” in office flirtation, with him probably being the aggressor, yey she was no innocent. I’ve worked with many very attractive women and have had attractive women work for me. My management style is indeed a friendly one and this often developed into friendships. However, as a married man we all know where the stirrings of a possible affair begins and that is when the personal friendship begins to disclose/discuss sex lives and/or sexual feelings. His implying that certain clothing she wore might give him an erection was way beyond the bounds. Had it not been flirtation he could have cautioned her that her dress was inappropriate for the patients, yet he chose his own sexual arousal.

    “Dr.Knight also recalls that after Nelson allegedly made a statement regarding infrequency in her sex life, he responded to her, “[T]hat’s like having a Lamborghini in the garage and never driving it.”

    Both her statement and his were over the line inappropriate and the type of banter that bespeaks of flirtatious behavior and of opening the door to sexuality. That he used it in an exculpatory manner, only makes the story ring true. My guess is that there was more than just his fear of his “feelings” getting out of hand to this story. In that type of situation he could have fired her for any number of reasons for cause since she didn’t have a contract. That he chose this excuse and wanted a seemingly unimpeachable witness (his minister) with him, indicates to me that there was a more intimate relationship involved here and that neither Dentist, nor Assistant could charge because both of them were married. The Judges, given the evidence must also realize that there was more involved, but they chose to add their own feelings (as men) towards it and made a ridiculous ruling and justification. One problem with laws trying to curb such noxious behavior as sexual harassment and/or discrimination is that there will always be situations like this where the law is twisted for personal gain. As someone married for more than thirty years I always knew what line not to cross with females and I never crossed it.

  14. I am hoping some decent constitutional rights organization takes this up to the US Supreme Court and gets it resoundingly overturned in the strongest terms. It means, actually, that an employer has total and absolute discretion to harass and fire anyone for any reason, because the employer can then allege, after the fact, that the real reason for the firing was to preserve their family. Picture me as a boss and I have ten men and ten women working for me. My sexual preference is my own business. I can fire anyone, man or woman, without cause, and then claim that I felt attracted to them and couldn’t be sure I would preserve my family’s happiness if I were to continue seeing them at work each day. The decision is an outright act of tyranny. Furthermore, exactly how can a woman like Nelson KEEP her job? If she makes herself unattractive she risks losing it one way; if she stays attractive she risks losing it another way.

    It reminds me of a custody battle I saw in Chicago. The mom had some kind of chronic illness that made her very skinny. Her ex-husband claimed that it was a MENTAL ILLNESS and made her an unfit mother. Meanwhile a father in Virginia was claiming that his ex-wife’s obesity made HER an unfit mother. I remember working on an amicus brief that asked, “How much does a fit mother weigh?” This outrageous Iowa decision (but of course, consider the source) has much in common with that concept. “How pretty can a good employee be?”

  15. The fact that the guy seems a little creepy shouldn’t deprive him of his right to hire whoever he wants. If this guy wants his assistants to be all Mexican migits with one eye, he should have that right.

  16. Nick, Who’s this Sheik Datmohny Makir ???

    Is he the guy heading up the “Impose Sharia Law In The Interests Of American Family Values” campaign?

  17. If an individual is an at-will employee they can be fired for no reason at all. As well, the employee is able to quit the job…at their will. Personally, if my boss told me my clothes were too tight I would start wearing baggy clothes and start looking for a new job. It is just logical.

  18. I think this is a valuable decision because it encourages honesty and reason. If the decision was against the doctor, then he simply becomes one of the entities that has to fabricate some sort of redundancy or downsizing excuse for removing the employee.

  19. nick spinelli
    1, December 24, 2012 at 9:49 am
    I don’t think any of the women here need fret about this decision!!

    ————————————————-

    Swarthmore mom
    1, December 24, 2012 at 9:53 am
    Nick, Why not? Some of us have daughters in the work place and some of us were hot when we were young.

    ———————————————-

    I’m still hot….. heck… I am 46 and still hot….
    I plan on being hot until I am at least 70…. :-)

  20. i’ll agree with mespo that it makes a good song. my first thought was it sounded like a bad sitcom.

    and nick, you’re going to have to pay full price for the 2013 edition of the “girls of turley blog” calendar.

  21. You just keep digging Nick its interesting to see how deep a hole you can get yourself into with this little sayings.

  22. Sure. It makes the boss grumpy and then when he gets home he has to kick the dog and that will mess up his family life. You’re history.

  23. Justagirlinseattle wrote:

    I’m still hot….. heck… I am 46 and still hot….
    I plan on being hot until I am at least 70

    That’s the spirit.

    With regard to this dentist. What a putz. A marauding hormone ravaged teenage guy has more restraint than he. He needs to man up and stay faithful to his wife, or at the very worst go down to Nevada and rent a hooker and get it out of his system.

    This guy is a schmuck and he thinks he is a jewel of a man. (you German speakers will know what I mean)

  24. I wonder if this dental office incident can now be incorporated into the vernacular somehow as a degree of attractiveness.

    New Continuum of attractiveness of women.

    Average
    Good looking
    Attractive
    Career limiting beauty
    Fatally attractive

  25. Somewhere in Darren’s list should be ….

    Sackable

    The term is ambiguous in itself.
    There are two interpretations of it which would normally have no connection.
    In this prticular case the two interpretations amount to the same thing.

  26. I plan on being hot until I am at least 70

    *******************************

    Hey now, why stop at 70? I like younger women.

  27. Pretty soon we will be watching on the UD channel…… DDS implants…..wife…..and is found in Aruba with his under cover lover by knight…..

  28. Question for the bloggers. Is Iowa a right to work state? This would be a funny twist on the phony concept. Yeah ya gotta right to work if your boobs are not too big or your not cute.

  29. OK, I’m confused. Iowa is a right-to-work state and that usually gives the employer the right to “fire-at-will”, no cause needed. Employers do not have that right in Iowa?

    I’ll grant is there is some indication of pervasive sexual, ethnic, or racial firings within an organization. But a dentist’s office?

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