It is hard to forget the outcome of the infamous 2012 Iowa Supreme Court case involving a woman, Melissa Nelson, who was fired from her job because she was too “irresistible” to her male employer, Dr. James Knight. After her termination, Ms. Nelson promptly filed a sexual harassment lawsuit claiming that she was terminated because of her gender. Although Mr. Knight conceded that Ms. Nelson was an excellent employee, the all male Iowa Supreme Court ruled that it was legal for Mr. Knight to fire Ms. Nelson because he was “concerned about the nature of their relationship,” and that he was not motivated by gender discrimination
Outside of the office, Dr. Knight and Ms. Nelson had entered into a consensual personal relationship that involved friendly texting and conversation. According to both of the Court’s opinions, both Ms. Nelson and Dr. Knight admitted that they had a closer relationship than Dr. Knight had with other employees in the office. Eventually, Dr. Knight’s friendly texts turned sexual in nature and he began sending her inappropriate unwarranted comments about her appearance and sexuality. A few months after this behavior began Dr. Knight suddenly fired Ms. Nelson telling her that she was a threat to his marriage although she had never responded to his advances.
In late June 2013, the Court announced that it would reconsider the case and vacated its prior opinion, giving hope to those who found the prior opinion to be a travesty, present company included. Unfortunately, on July 12, 2013, the Court upheld its 2012 decision to dismiss the sexual discrimination claims against Dr. Knight. In its latest opinion, the Court explained that Dr. Knight, although “unfair” and “ungenerous,” did not discriminate against Ms. Nelson because of her gender. The Court clarified that it would be unlawful to fire a female employee because of her attractiveness and physical attributes, but that this was not the reason for Ms. Nelson’s termination. Rather, Dr. Knight fired her because of feelings and emotions that arose from their consensual personal relationship.
The Court also wrote that this was an isolated decision based on an employer’s personal relationship with a specific employee, making the termination legal even if the relationship would not have existed had Ms. Nelson been male.
In the opinion of many, including those lawyers in our practice, the motives which the Iowa Supreme Court divine as innocent – “feelings and emotions” – are one in the same with many other sexist motivations, including a 1950’s belief that a woman’s sexual allure is relevant, for good or bad, in an evaluation of their performance or qualifications as an employee. The “feelings” involved are based on the good dentist’s lustful impulses, and therefore inseparable from the plaintiff’s “attractiveness and physical attributes” as a woman. This is not to mention the many other ways discrimination played a part in the allegations before the Supreme Court – the uninvited sexual text messages and emails, provided there were enough of them, alone are enough to create a hostile work environment and the fact that the termination came shortly after the plaintiff made it known that the dentist’s feelings were not reciprocated supports a claim for quid pro quo harassment.
Many other women have come forward claiming that they have been discriminated against in the workplace under similar circumstances. For example, in 2010 a New York Citibank employee, Debrahlee Lorenzana, filed a sexual discrimination suit against the bank claiming that she was unlawfully terminated because her appearance was distracting to male employees. Citibank responded to Ms. Lorenzana’s claims by stating that no one of either gender should dress provocatively in the workplace because it is unprofessional. At the same time, this standard of professionalism can be applied to both genders, weakening Ms. Lorenzana’s claims. The question that remains is whether this standard will continue to be applied to women only, but Citibank’s position is unquestionably meritorious.
Both cases reflect serious issues that continue to affect thousands of women in Brooklyn and New York City, especially in the financial industry, the corporate world, and among the specialized professions such as the practice of medicine and the law. Unfortunately, the Iowa Supreme Court made a tangled mess of a simple and strong case, failing to recognize a very basic, directly proven fact – that Ms. Nelson was fired for nothing more than being a woman in the workplace.