In 2010, Iowa dentist James Knight fired Melissa Nelson, his dental assistant of 10 years, because she had become a “detriment” to his family. For the sake of both of their families, they could no longer work together. Knight and his wife, fairly or not, found Nelson to be a threat to their marriage. Though he has said she was the best dental assistant he ever had, he apparently found the nature of their relationship to be a perceived threat to his marriage and feared he would try to have an affair in the future if he did not fire her.
In 2009, Knight and Nelson, both married, began exchanging personal texts. The Supreme Court documents outline that though Knight felt Nelson’s clothing was “too tight”, she considered him to be a friend and father figure. Nelson “denies that she ever flirted with him or sought an intimate or sexual relationship with him.” According to CNN.com, Knight's wife, who was employed at the same dental office, found out about those messages in late 2009 and demanded he fire Nelson.
In early 2010, in the presence of a pastor, Knight fired Nelson with one month’s severance pay.
Knight has stated she was not fired because of her gender; in fact, Nelson was replaced with another female dental assistant.
Nelson filed a lawsuit claiming she had been fired because of her gender, though she did not make claims of sexual harassment.
A district court found that Knight was within his rights as an employer to fire Nelson. The all-male Supreme Court of Iowa last week agreed stating that there was no evidence of “sex discrimination in violation of the Iowa Civil Rights Act.”
Justice Edward M. Mansfield wrote: "Can a male employer terminate a female employee because the employer’s wife, due to no fault of the employee, is concerned about the nature of the relationship between the employer and the employee?"
The Iowa Supreme Court voted unanimously that Nelson’s gender was not a factor in her termination.
“... the issue before us is not whether a jury could find that Dr. Knight treated Nelson badly. We are asked to decide only if a genuine fact issue exists as to whether Dr. Knight engaged in unlawful gender discrimination when he fired Nelson at the request of his wife. For the reasons previously discussed, we believe this conduct did not amount to unlawful discrimination, and therefore we affirm the judgment of the district court."
What do you think? Did the Supreme Court skirt around issues of gender discrimination and harassment? Is it fair to terminate employment because of an employer’s lack of self control? Will this case set further precedent of harassment cloaked in the sanctity of marriage? Or did Dr. Knight do the right thing?