October 25, 2014

Supreme Court: dentist’s firing of assistant to save marriage not descrimination

The state Supreme Court has ruled an Iowa dentist was justified in firing a female dental assistant over worries by his wife about their relationship. Dr. James Knight of Fort Dodge hired 20-year-old dental assistant Melisa Nelson in 1999 shortly after she graduated from community college.

Nelson worked for Knight for over ten years and during that time he sometimes complained that her clothing was too tight and distracting. They started exchanging texts about various things outside of work, but said they were not intimately involved.

Knight wife found out about the texting and told her husband he had to fire Nelson because she was a threat to their marriage. Knight called Nelson in and told her she had done nothing wrong, and that she was the best dental assistant he ever had, but he was firing her out of a fear that their relationship could someday turn into an affair.

Knight hired another woman to replace Nelson. Nelson sued, saying her firing was discriminatory because she was a woman. The district court dismissed the case saying Nelson was fired because of the threat to Knight’s marriage and not because she was a woman.

A divided Appeals Court upheld the dismissal. The Iowa Supreme Court upheld the two lower court rulings. The decision said if Nelson could show that she had been terminated because she did not conform to a particular stereotype, this might be a different case.

The court said it is undisputed that Nelson was fired because Ms. Knight, unfairly or not, viewed her as a threat to her marriage.

See the complete ruling here: Knight ruling PDF