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. 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?

  2. 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.

  3. 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…..

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


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

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


    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.

  6. 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.

    Good looking
    Career limiting beauty
    Fatally attractive

  7. 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)

  8. And now, according to Nick S, all us female Turley posters are in big damn trouble…. 👿

  9. 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.

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

  11. 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.

  12. 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…. 🙂

  13. 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.

  14. 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.

  15. 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?

  16. 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.

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