Iowa Supreme Court errs on sexual harassment caseAfter pelting Melissa Nelson with sexual innuendos, her boss fired her for being too sexually irresistible.
By: Rekha Basu, The Dickinson Press
After pelting Melissa Nelson with sexual innuendos, her boss fired her for being too sexually irresistible. And this month, the Iowa Supreme Court gave him cover. In dismissing the 32-year-old former dental assistant’s sex-discrimination lawsuit, the now all-male court unanimously found it was acceptable for 53-year-old dentist James Knight to fire the mother of two “simply because the boss views the employee as an irresistible attraction.”
The ruling so disregards core civil rights principles that it is hard to believe the same court made civil-rights history three years ago by ruling that gay Iowans had a right to marry. The court declared Nelson was fired not for being female but for being a threat to Knight’s marriage, because of his “feelings and emotions” toward her.
Let’s be clear. They were not romantic “feelings and emotions,” but pure, one-sided lust from an older man getting his jollies by talking dirty to an attractive young woman. If Nelson had not been female, he wouldn’t have had those “feelings” and she wouldn’t be out of a job.
Nelson loved her job and the career she had trained for in college. She says things were fine until the last year or so of her 10-year employment, which ended two Januarys ago. She had known Knight as her dentist since she was in college. She said she viewed him as a father figure. But as he approached 50 and, she believes, entered a midlife crisis, Knight began calling attention to her sex, saying things like if she saw his pants “bulging,” she would know her clothing was too revealing.
He has acknowledged she did nothing to provoke or indulge him. Nelson said she dressed no differently than the other women in the office — in long-sleeve crew neck T-shirts under lab coats. She had a pink one, while the others wore white. Sometimes because it was hot, she removed her lab coat.
After Knight got a cellphone and discovered texting, he sent Nelson messages and she replied — at first small talk, until “toward the end they turned sexual,” she says. He asked her, for example, how often she had orgasms. Nelson says she had no sexual interest in the man she considered a “dork,” but also didn’t fear he would assault her. So she ignored the lurid messages and told no one.
That behavior has all the hallmarks of sexual harassment, but Nelson didn’t sue him for that. Her attorney Paige Fiedler says it is very hard to even get such a case before a jury unless the offender practically assaulted the recipient, and she vigorously resisted.
But Knight’s growing attention to Nelson didn’t sit well with his wife, who Nelson says showed up in his office one day and set a folder on his desk. Later, Nelson was called in and fired, with one month’s severance pay.
“I was just completely blindsided,” she said. The next day, at his request, Nelson’s husband met with Knight, who had his pastor present. Knight acknowledged Nelson had done nothing wrong and was, in fact, the best dental assistant he had ever had, the ruling says, “but that he feared he would try to have an affair with her down the road if he did not fire her.”
Nelson filed a civil-rights suit in district court. Knight got it dismissed before trial. She appealed to the Iowa Supreme Court, which, in dismissing the sex-discrimination claim, noted Knight replaced Nelson with another woman. Heaven help us if unjustly firing one woman can be canceled out by hiring another.
Nelson now works six nights a week in a sports bar. She wanted her suit to “help one woman not have to go through it.” But its outcome may discourage other women from seeking justice, and attorneys from representing them. Nelson’s attorney Paige Fiedler lost $80,000 in legal fees she would have collected if they had won.
Men and women deal daily with workplace attractions. To accept that it is impossible for a man to control himself around women is to accept that sexual harassment, and maybe even rape, can result from uncontrollable urges, too. It is to accept the Taliban’s justification for keeping females out of schools and work sites.
Iowa became one of three states with an all-male supreme court, after its female chief justice was tossed out in a 2010 retention election by voters unhappy with the court’s same-sex marriage ruling. Had there been a female justice, perhaps this court would not have rewarded a boss’ sexism while punishing its target with the loss of her job and income.
Until women are on the court again, justices need training on what an equitable workplace is, and why accepting at face value a man’s claims that he can’t control himself robs women of equal opportunities.
Basu is a Des Moines Register columnist. Column distributed by Scripps Howard News Service.