A dentist acted legally when he fired a longtime assistant because he had grown too attracted to her and worried he would try to start an affair, the Iowa Supreme Court reaffirmed Friday in its second crack at the controversial case.
Coming to the same outcome as it did in December, but clarifying its rationale, the court found that bosses can fire employees that they and their spouses see as threats to their marriages. The court said such firings do not count as sex discrimination because they are motivated by feelings, not gender.
Let’s recap the basics of what happened. James Knight, a married Iowa dentist, employed Melissa Nelson, who is two decades his junior, and who is also married. Nelson showed no interest in a romantic relationship and did not make any advances towards her boss.
She was nevertheless fired, not because Nelson was bad at her job, but because Knight said he might be tempted to have an extramarital affair with her, and in fact, made unrequited advances. In other words, the dentist, with his wife’s encouragement, fired his assistant so he wouldn’t be tempted to pursue a woman who’d expressed no romantic interest in him.
The Iowa Supreme Court, made up entirely of male justices, said that’s legal because it wasn’t technically gender discrimination – Knight didn’t fire Nelson because she’s a woman; he fired her because he found her attractive. Indeed, as part of Knight’s defense, his lawyers noted Nelson was replaced by a different woman (whom he presumably found less pretty), which helped prove that he wasn’t motivated by misogyny.
From a distance, it certainly looks like another step backwards for workplace gender equity.