Press Release – Nelson v. Knight
Iowa Supreme Court Affirms Employer’s Firing of Attractive Employee Stating She Didn’t Rebuke Her Bosses Sexual Advances Forcefully Enough
DECISION DILUTES CIVIL RIGHTS PROTECTIONS AGAINST GENDER DISCRIMINATION
DES MOINES, Iowa (July 12, 2013) — An attractive female employee whose presence sparks sexual feelings and inappropriate behavior from her male boss is not protected by the Iowa Civil Rights Act if he should decide to fire her, according to a decision released today by the Iowa Supreme Court.
The matter of Melissa Nelson v. Dr. James H. Knight DDS, P.C. and James Knight was before the high court for a second time after attorneys for Nelson asked the court to reconsider its December 21, 2012, ruling denying her a trial.
At the center of the issue is the termination of 33-year-old Melissa Nelson, who worked as a dental assistant for James Knight for more than a decade. During the last year and a half of Nelson’s employment, Knight told her that her clothing was too tight and “distracting” to him; asked her how often she orgasmed; discussed an erection he claimed she caused; and raved about her body.
On January 4, 2010, Knight fired Nelson in front of his pastor at the end of the work day, noting that he was becoming too personally attached to her and that he feared he would try to have an affair with her in the future. Knight and his wife later testified that he fired Nelson because the couple decided she was a threat to their marriage.
After receiving a right to sue letter from the Iowa Civil Rights Commission, Nelson filed a lawsuit in Webster County District Court alleging sex discrimination in violation of the Iowa Civil Rights Act. The district court dismissed the case and Nelson appealed to the Iowa Supreme Court. On December 21, 2012, the Iowa Supreme Court unanimously found for Knight. Nelson filed for reconsideration.
The court’s decision not to allow the case to proceed to trial remained unanimous, although three justices issued a separate justification. In this concurring opinion, Justice Mark Cady defined Knight’s unwanted, unwelcome sexual comments to Nelson to be “an undeniable part of the consensual personal relationship enjoyed by Nelson and Dr. Knight.”
STATEMENT FROM PAIGE FIEDLER, ATTORNEY FOR MELISSA NELSON
“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.
“When a rapist holds a deadly weapon, it is usually safer for the woman not to fight back. The same is true of sexual harassment. All respected studies show that outcomes are far worse for women who forcefully object to the sexual harassment than for those who find a way to ignore it. Most women know this and try everything they can think of to deal with sexual harassment informally so that they won’t be retaliated against. This is especially true in a business where the sexual harasser himself is the one and only owner. Up until now, courts were the only thing standing in the way of employers like Knight getting away with violating employees’ civil rights. Now men can protect themselves from sexual harassment claims simply by firing women they’ve been harassing.
“I am horrified that the court referred to Knight’s sexual behavior as ‘consensual.’ Melissa did not engage in any behavior remotely similar to that of Knight. Just because she didn’t publicly embarrass Knight, her employer of 10 years, does not mean that she embraced, reciprocated or welcomed his conduct. Justice Cady insinuates that the casual work friendship Melissa believed she had with Knight is legally the same as if the two had had a sexual relationship. Every woman in America who works for a male boss or supervisor knows there is a big difference.”
Sexually Harassing Remarks Equated with ‘Banter’
“Although Melissa ignored, discouraged, and deflected her boss’ sexual advances, the Iowa Supreme Court has decided she must have been complicit in them because she didn’t fight back hard enough. It has come to this conclusion without ever having seen Melissa Nelson or heard her testify about this. During the oral arguments, members of the Court were fixated on Knight and the terrible position he was in, having been given an ultimatum from his wife. None of them seemed able to imagine themselves in the position of a young Iowa woman who was fired through no fault of her own. For instance, Justice Cady referred to Knight’s completely one-sided unreciprocated sexual harassment as ‘banter.’ In doing so, he discounts the very serious harm that those statements engendered and reduces them to something playful and mutually fun.
“A decision like this is possible only when the decision makers have been sheltered from the day-to-day reality of what it is like to be a woman working outside the home in America. It underscores the necessity of having panels of judges from different walks of life, of different races, with varied professional experiences, and of both genders.
Never to Get Her Day in Court
“Melissa’s life will never be the same after this experience: She has lost her profession and endured great emotional distress—all because her boss didn’t think he would be able to control himself. Now, the seven white male justices who sit on the Iowa Supreme Court have told her that she will never get her day in court. While Melissa is sad for herself and her family, she is even more upset at the way this decision will affect the rights of countless Iowa women to participate in the workplace on a fair and equal footing with men.”