IOWA CITY, Iowa (CN) - A dentist who fired an attractive assistant because he and his wife viewed her as a threat to their marriage acted legally, the Iowa Supreme Court ruled.
James Knight fired Melissa Nelson on Jan. 4, 2010 after working together for over ten years. Nelson, who was 19 when she was hired by Knight in 1999, says she viewed him as a father figure and never sought a romantic relationship and never flirted with him.
According to court records, Knight agreed with that and he never sought a relationship with Nelson either. Problems started when Knight's wife, who also worked in the office, found the two exchanging text messages outside of work and demanded Knight fire Nelson because "she was a big threat to our marriage."
Both parties claim the texts were not romantic in nature.
Nelson sued Knight claiming her firing was based on her gender in violation of Iowa's Civil Rights Act. The state's all-male high court ruled 7-0 to affirm a district court's granting of summary judgment in favor of Knight.
In his opinion Friday, Justice Edward Mansfield wrote that while such firings are unfair, they are not unlawful discrimination because they are motivated by feeling and emotions, not by gender.
"The civil rights laws seek to insure that employees are treated the same regardless of their sex or other protected status," Mansfield wrote. "Yet even taking Nelson's view of the facts, Dr. Knight's unfair decision to terminate Nelson (while paying her a rather ungenerous one month's
severance) does not jeopardize that goal. This is illustrated by the fact that Dr. Knight hired a female replacement for Nelson."
In his opinion, Mansfield cited other state and federal rulings that found workers can be fired for relationships that cause jealousy and tension within an employer's family. Mansfield also wrote that allowing Nelson's lawsuit would stretch the definition of discrimination to allow anyone fired over a relationship to file a claim for gender discrimination.