Two days ago, the Iowa State Supreme Court issued a decision in the case Nelson v. Knight.
Almost immediately, the media seized the opportunity to sensationalize the case and make it into something it is not.
As an attorney, my first reaction to case decisions is not to have a reaction. I want to read the actual opinion, not the media's interpretation of it. Far too often, they blow pieces of an opinion out of proportion and miss the point altogether. I think that's what happened here.
For the sake of brevity, I'll summarize the case for you.
A dentist, who employs an all female office, hired Ms. Nelson ten years prior to the filing of the lawsuit. She worked as a hygienist in the office, doing a good job in her field. Approximately six months before she was fired, her and the owner, a married man, began exchanging personal non-work related text messages. By this point, Ms. Nelson had married and had children of her own.
Ms. Nelson had developed a habit of staying at the office late with Mr. Knight after all the other employees left for the day, including Mrs. Knight who also worked there.
Mr. Knight told Ms. Nelson that her tight clothes were distracting him, and that if a "bulge" in his pants appeared, it would be because of that. She discussed her sex life with him, they discussed their marriages and children. There were times she did not reply to intimate questions he sent her through text messages, but she did not tell him to stop.
After six months of this non-work related contact and texting, Mrs. Knight found the messages in her husband's phone. Upon consulting with their pastor, Mr. Knight agreed to fire Ms. Nelson at the demands of his wife since they all determined that Ms. Nelson "posed a threat to their marriage". Mr. Knight admitted he would probably attempt to begin a physical affair with her if she continued to work there.
She sued, alleging sexual discrimination. Notably, she did not pursue a case on the grounds of sexual harassment.
The state supreme court was bound to interpret the facts of the case in the light most favorable to the plaintiff, because it was an appeal of a summary judgment. Essentially, this means that they had to believe that whatever she said was true. So, when she claimed to have no interest in the defendant, they had to believe that. The actual facts seem a little different, but the court had to accept her version.
They ruled that his termination of her on the grounds that she was irresistible to him was not discriminatory. She had alleged sexual discrimination from the beginning, that she would not have been fired but for the fact that she was female.
The all-male court here ruled 7-0 that she was not fired based on gender, and that she was fired because of the feelings and emotions of the defendant. Her gender was not the reason, and the fact that all his staff members are female, including the hygienist that replaced her, prove that.
Within minutes of the ruling, the media jumped on this case as making it kosher to fire beautiful women because men can't be trusted to keep their pants on around them.
Courts in this country are charged with interpreting law, not necessarily decided what is right and wrong. Here, they were asked to decide if what he did was discriminatory. They said, very clearly, that it wasn't. It may not have been the nice thing to do, but it was not illegal.
All his other employees were women, he hadn't fired anyone else before. There was no pattern of discrimination towards women. This was just about her.
Reality is, this man was engaged in an inappropriate relationship with his female employee. He was attracted to her, he sent her sexual text messages, she spent a little too much time lingering around the office. I can't say whether the relationship had ever progressed beyond emotions, but it was already an emotional affair, at least on his part, and she knew that. The court had to assume she wasn't attracted to him, but to any outside observer it appears that she was. In addition, the fact that she chose not to pursue sexual harassment charges (which would have had a greater chance of success here), tells me that his actions weren't unwelcome.
Either that, or she got very bad advice from her attorney.
At the end of the day, this case isn't about the fact that she was attractive or that he was a horny married guy who couldn't help himself, as much as the media may want you to believe that. Men can work with very attractive women platonically, and men can choose to have affairs with very unattractive women. And vice versa. Affairs aren't about physical appearances anyway, they are about selfishness and opportunity.
Affairs are also far more common than most people realize, and frequently happen between co-workers and bosses/subordinates.
This case is about the fact that when people develop emotions for co-workers and their spouses find out, there is going to be fall-out. People get fired every single day in this country for having inappropriate relationships, and there is nothing illegal about that.
Some would call it karma, even.
Almost all employment in this country is at-will, which means that you can be fired at any time, for any reason, legally so long as the motivation was not discriminatory. Here, Ms. Nelson was fired for being irresistible.
Was it fair to her? No, not really. Life isn't fair though, even in a court of law.
Was it legal? Yes.
Just as people can be refused employment for being unattractive (and trust me when I say that this happens all the time in the real world), they can be refused employment and even fired for being too attractive.
This case isn't about gender, or women-hating, or discrimination.
It's about why you shouldn't be texting your boss on weekends about your marriage.
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