The Unjust and Incomprehensible Firing of Melissa Nelson

Melissa Newton (left); Dr. Knight's ideal dental assistant (right)

Melissa Nelson (left); Dr. Knight’s (and Mrs. Knight’s) ideal dental assistant (right)

An Iowa court has decreed that a boss may fire a worker for no other reason than the fact that she is so sexy that she makes his wife jealous, and with good reason, since he finds her irresistibly attractive.

Wait…what???

If the Iowa Supreme Court’s ruling that dentist James Knight was within his legal rights to fire otherwise efficient and effective dental assistant Melissa Nelson because he couldn’t resist her innate womanly charms stands, and it will take the Supreme Court of the United States to reverse it, gender discrimination has just been given a green light by one of the highest courts in the land.

We’ve been down this road before: back in 2010 a self-described hottie named Debrahlee Lorenzana sued Citibank for allegedly firing her because she was too sexy for the workplace. The difference is that Citibank disputed her claim that this was what got her canned, and successfully, apparently. Debrahlee pretty clearly was out to make a name for herself, and seemed less a victim of male horniness than an aspiring exploiter of sexual harassment laws. Nelson, however, does not appear to have gone out of her way to flaunt professional workplace decorum in her choice of dress. She just made her boss frisky, his wife noticed, and thus he claims that she had to be let go “to save their marriage.”

Well, this is now apparently legal in Iowa. It is so unfair, sexist and cruel, however, that I’m thinking of skipping my December 26 dental appointment in protest. If an employer refuses to hire a woman because she is too attractive, that is as discriminatory as refusing to hire her because she is too ugly, old, fat, dark or Muslim. This ruling, however, endorses such discrimination as an expression of “family values.” It is undoubtedly true that attractive men and women usually experience an inherently unfair advantage in the employment process, so this bizarre treatment of Ms. Nelson might seem like what George Will likes to call “condign justice.”  Nonetheless, this is wrong in every way. Nelson, who has done nothing wrong other than have good genes, avoid  ice cream binges, know how to apply make-up and hit  the gym now and then, is being punished because her boss is an over-aged adolescent and his wife doesn’t trust him. Where is the justice in that?

The facts published about the case, in my view, make a strong case for workplace harassment. Nelson alleged that Knight, 53, told her that if his pants were bulging, she would know her outfits were too revealing.  Ick. He also  joked about her lack of a social life by saying it was “like having a Lamborghini in the garage and never driving it.” It seems that Dr. Knight consulted his pastor about how to handle his problem, and the good man of God didn’t say, “Grow up, you twit!” or “Keep your eyes up and your mind out of the gutter,” but told him to fire Nelson instead. Nice. Score a touchdown for the sexist jerk team, which now includes the Iowa Supreme Court.

“These judges sent a message to Iowa women that they don’t think men can be held responsible for their sexual desires,” Nelson’s attorney, Paige Fiedler, told the Associated Press. “If (the bosses) get out of hand, then the women can be legally fired for it.” I think that’s a fair summary. Nelson isn’t like Debrahlee Lorenzana, who went out of her way to emphasize her, uh, assets, which she had already had surgically emphasized, if you get my drift.“I wore a long-sleeve or short-sleeve T-shirt and I wore scrubs,” Nelson, a happily married mother, said, explaining that her work attire was hardly revealing. She also said that she wouldn’t have been fired if she were a man, an obvious conclusion that the horny dentist’s lawyer had the gall to dispute. “While there was really no fault on the part of Mrs. Nelson, it was just as clear the decision to terminate her was not related to the fact that she was a woman,” Stuart Cochrane told the AP. “The motives behind Dr. Knight terminating Mrs. Nelson were quite clear: He did so to preserve his marriage.”

Riiiight, Stuart. And he would have fired her to save his marriage if she had been an equally attractive man, Cocker Spaniel, robot or toaster. What do you mean, “the decision to terminate her was not related to the fact that she was a woman?”Ethically, this decision makes no sense to me at all. It’s enough to make one an anti-dentite.

__________________________________________

Facts: Daily News

Sources: Dealbreaker 1, Dealbreaker 2

29 Comments

Filed under Gender and Sex, Law & Law Enforcement, Workplace

29 responses to “The Unjust and Incomprehensible Firing of Melissa Nelson

  1. zoebrain

    From the AP

    The court ruled 7-0 that bosses can fire employees they see as an “irresistible attraction,” even if the employees have not engaged in flirtatious behavior or otherwise done anything wrong. Such firings may be unfair, but they are not unlawful discrimination under the Iowa Civil Rights Act because they are motivated by feelings and emotions, not gender, Justice Edward Mansfield wrote.

    Knight and Nelson — both married with children — started exchanging text messages, mostly about personal matters, such as their families. Knight’s wife, who also worked in the dental office, found out about the messages and demanded Nelson be fired. The Knights consulted with their pastor, who agreed that terminating Nelson was appropriate.

    Knight fired Nelson and gave her one month’s severance. He later told Nelson’s husband that he worried he was getting too personally attached and feared he would eventually try to start an affair with her.

    Nelson was stunned because she viewed the 53-year-old Knight as a father figure and had never been interested in starting a relationship, Fiedler said.

    Knight argued Nelson was fired not because of her gender, but because her continued employment threatened his marriage. A district judge agreed, dismissing the case before trial, and the high court upheld that ruling.

    Mansfield noted that Knight had an all-female workforce and Nelson was replaced by a woman.

    He said the decision was in line with state and federal court rulings that found workers can be fired for relationships that cause jealousy and tension within a business owner’s family. One such case from the 8th Circuit Court of Appeals upheld a business owner’s firing of a valued employee who was seen by his wife as a threat to their marriage. In that case, the fired employee had engaged in flirtatious conduct.

    Mansfield said allowing Nelson’s lawsuit would stretch the definition of discrimination to allow anyone fired over a relationship to file a claim arguing they would not have been fired but for their gender.

    Knight’s attorney, Stuart Cochrane, said the court got it right. The decision clarified that bosses can make decisions showing favoritism to a family member without committing discrimination; in this case, by allowing Knight to honor his wife’s wishes to fire Nelson, he said.

    Knight is a very religious and moral individual, and he sincerely believed that firing Nelson would be best for all parties, he said.

    “While there was really no fault on the part of Mrs. Nelson, it was just as clear the decision to terminate her was not related to the fact that she was a woman,” he said. “The motives behind Dr. Knight terminating Mrs. Nelson were quite clear: He did so to preserve his marriage.

    “Very Religious” I can believe. Moral – not so much.

  2. Anthony

    Sure. THAT’S why you’re not going to the dentist.

  3. Jack: It wasn’t fair to put Melissa Newton’s picture side by side with Nancy Pelosi’s ! Show a little class, big guy.

      • I’d say (in seriousness, this time) that this jerk’s problem was purely with himself. He needs to get a new pastor, too! Only in our present day could I have imagined that something like this would have gone to court, much less a supreme court. Mrs. Newton should have just walked out and then taken it up with the American Dentistry Association on a question of professional ethics.

        • 2 Things:

          1) In the example image above, I’d hire the girl on the right immediately as a dental assistant. It would appear her own personal dental hygiene is exemplary. What better way to advertise the practice than with workers who care about the profession on a personal level. Ha.

          2) “court, much less a supreme court. Mrs. Newton should have just walked out and then taken it up with the American Dentistry Association on a question of professional ethics.” -SMP

          Good observation. Something, I’ve noticed missing from modern culture is a proper progression of force or progression of addressing grievances. Everyone nowadays seems to rush straight to the most powerful option to solve a problem.

          In the military we had a guideline: fight with the lowest level of contact necessary, if the problem does not get solved, bring in progressively bigger guns and larger formations until the problem is solved.

          So much of our lack of civility is betrayed when we do not follow a logical progression to solve our problems and just jump straight to the big guns, potentially making a mess of everything.

          Maybe she did take it a level at a time. Maybe she didn’t. What if she had taken a step at a time, and maybe that first step, perhaps from SMP’s example, had solved the problem. No needless publicity, the erring party/parties learn from their mistakes, move on.

          • It additionally gives the free market a chance to solve the problem on an individual basis without creating potentially binding precedents.

            • When conduct is against the law, the law is a reasonable first recourse. I think this is flat out sexual discrimination, maybe harassment, and wildly unethical and unfair besides. There’s no professional standard in dentistry that covers this kind of conduct. It’s called “being a juvenile jerk and making other people suffer for it.” People like the dentist (not the receptionist) are why we are clogged with laws. In this case, Iowa is almost forced to try to handle the situation with legislation.

              • You are correct. I forgot the law had been violated when discussing SMP’s reference to taking things a step at a time.

                I’d still submit though in a non lawbreaking scenario a diplomatic approach allows for resolution at the lowest necessary level.

                • Sure. The courts should be a last resort or no resort at all for most conflicts. Sometimes, the ethical thing is to smile, shrug, and go on.

                  Being robbed of your job and income when you have done a good job (which was never contested) and are not courting sexual attention, however, is exactly what the harassment and discrimination laws were put in place to stop. I know wives pressuring wayward spouses to fire attractive assistants and secretaries is as old a story as there is, but the assistant shouldn’t have to tolerate it or suffer for it in 2012.

          • In other words, “up the chain of command”, Tex. True; but, of course, civilian society is a little more complex. One trouble with modern society is this ongoing juristic outlook. Stub your toe? Get a lawyer and sue the city for curbs that are too high. You’re not a fault. Other’s are… and you stand to get a settlement. What’s to lose? I’m not saying that Miss Newton thinks that way, but the attitude is so prevalent that it may just be unconscious to many.

            Certainly, this guy is a clod at best. As such, she’s just as well rid of him. Why would any woman want to work for some guy who was, by his virtual own admission, just inches away from pawing her at any given time? At the same time, though, she had a duty to her profession to report the unprofessional conduct of her former employer. For that, she should have gone to the ADA, not some civil court.

            That assumes, of course, that the ADA is still an effective watchdog organization for professional ethics! A lot of such groups these days are a pathetic caricature of what they once were. But, then again, so are many courts.

            • Steven, you can’t be this naive. More than 50% of all attractive women in the US work for guys who are just inches away from pawing them at any given time. Professionals, decent men and ethical employers know not to to, and don’t. But if women quit every job that required close contact with hoprny guys, they would have trouble working at all.

            • Steven, you can’t be this naive. More than 50% of all attractive women in the US work for guys who are just inches away from pawing them at any given time. Professionals, decent men and ethical employers know not to to, and don’t. But if women quit every job that required close contact with hoprny guys, they would have trouble working at all.

              • I don’t deny that, Jack. But professional, responsible men know how to restrain their “primal urges”! This guy just about said outright that he couldn’t. And he’s a doctor. What would happen if, for instance, he had a beautiful woman under sedation for some bridgework and couldn’t control himself then? If Miss Newton (lovely as she is) presented such an impossible challenge for him beyond others, he should have arranged another position for her through his contacts. That… or take long, cold showers before showing up for work.

                • tgt

                  The point about a sedated patient seems to go towards reporting his statements to someone. If that’s what you meant, I agree

                  Past that, I’m more confident that we agree. If the dentist didn’t think he could control his urges, then he should have worked with his assistant to find another suitable position that she was happy with. If that wouldn’t work out (for whatever reason), he needs to suck it up and control his creepiness.

                  “I need to fire you because, otherwise, I’d sexually harass you” is just another form of sexual harrassment. If it was allowed, it would give bosses’ incredible power over women they found attractive.

        • zoebrain

          It had already been through a district court, then a high court, before going to a supreme court.

          I gather it’s necessary to exhaust all possibilities of a state remedy before taking it to a Federal court under title VII of the Civil Rights Act 1964, or the case will be dismissed unheard. But IANAL.

  4. Jim Lonas

    You used a picture of a girl that has to eat every 15 minutes or die to make a statement. Have you ever read her story? I agree with the original point of the story, but if your ethics alarms didn’t go off, you should change the name of this site.

    • The alarm went off. I decided to post it anyway. She allowed her face to be used in one feature about “the ugliest woman in the world”, and the use of the photo, which has been widely published, was an obvious reference to her appearance, not her malady. The story was about a dentist who fired an assistant for being too attractive—the picture suggested that this woman, then, would be perfect. Nothing unethical there.

      And I don’t appreciate “gotcha’s” , which is how you presented this.

  5. Melvin Elroy

    Why millions of “ladies” don’t act like ladies and do the unladylike thing and do what is unethical and call the cops on a man because he told her, her bosom is lovely and her cleavage is nice is beyond me knowing that hes being wrongfully punished for telling a truthful compliment that he should not be banished and jailed for. This inappropriate behaviour of women passing judgement on men and their compliments would have been unheard of a few years ago when ladies were ladies unlike now.

  6. Elliott G

    Did anyone not realize how ETHICALLY/MORALLY wrong it was to use an actual person for the “ugly” picture in this article?? Her name is Lizzie Velasquez and has been the victim of teasing and cruelty by ignorant people like yourselves. She is now an inspirational speaker I believe. You all can look it up, and you should. Way to think you know anything about ethics, while unknowingly (I hope) doing the opposite in the very same article. Guess your half-assed moral principles go only so far. Fucking hypocrites. Wow.

    • Nope, this is a gotcha. Ms Velasquez is a spokesperson for people who are not considered attractive: the use of her picture is consistent with her activities, illustrated the post topic, and in no way harms her, teases her or denigrates her. Is any photo of her inherently unethical? Your complaint is incoherent. Facts are not unethical. Truth is not unethical. It is not exploitation, because Lizzie Velasquez uses and publicizes her appearance herself.

      Yours is just a kneejerk, emotional complaint without content. The post specifically condemns discriminatory hiring because of appearance.

      • Elliott G

        Ethical:
        1) relating to moral principles or the branch of knowledge dealing with these.
        Or
        2) morally good or correct
        Or
        3) avoiding activities or organizations that do harm to people or the environment

        So talk about knee-jerk reaction there, guy. So if you did read more on her, she actually has a more focused on anti-bullying and preaches to be happy with who you are. But that aside, I believe I agree with the author’s main points of the article. But that’s not what I’m addressing. What I am addressing is that when posting within an “ethics” forum, one may not want to lead with a title photo that says, and I paraphrase, this one is attractive and this one is not, and if that’s not teasing then I don’t know what is. It’s not the photo itself, it’s the use of the photo. And I am surprised that that one and only point of my comment got by you.

        Again, my comment wasn’t on the content of the post. My comment adresssed the irony of talking about ethics while doing something not all that ethical. (See definition 3)

        Better ways to start and article is all I have to say. But then again, we’re talking about it, so I guess this type of garbage sells…

        • Put quotes around ethics on this blog again and it will be your last comment. I’ll accept your point, which has some validity; I don’t agree, but it’s supportable.

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