Iowa Supreme Court to Reconsider Case of “Irresistible Employee”

By: Ryan Koopmans on June 25th, 2013

The Iowa Supreme Court agreed on Monday to withdraw its December 2012 decision in Nelson v. James H. Knight DDS, P.C. and reconsider the case.  That’s an extraordinary move, which comes six months after the court received national attention for ruling that a male employer does not commit gender discrimination if he fires a female employee at the request of a jealous wife.

Melissa Nelson worked for ten years as a dental assistant to Dr. James Knight, and the two had a close relationship—though they saw that relationship differently. Nelson viewed Knight, whom she believed “to be a person of high integrity,” as a father figure.  Knight, by contrast, was attracted to Nelson and told her so.  He asked her not to wear tight clothing because it tempted him.  And on one occasion when Nelson made a passing comment about the infrequency of her sex life, Knight responded: “[T]hat’s like having a Lamborghini in the garage and never driving it.”

Knight’s wife, Jeanne, wasn’t so fond of Nelson.  Jeanne also worked in the office and believed that Nelson was cold to her, flirted with Knight, and often stayed late after work so that it “would just be her and [Knight] there.”  While on a family vacation in late 2009, Jeanne discovered that Knight and Nelson had been texting each other.  At that point, she demanded that Knight fire Nelson because “she was a big threat to their marriage.”

After visiting with his pastor, Knight did just that.  He assured Nelson that she hadn’t done anything wrong–Nelson “was the best dental assistant Knight ever had”–but he was “getting to personally attached to her,” to the detriment of his marriage.

Nelson sued for gender discrimination under the Iowa Civil Rights Act, the theory being that Knight wouldn’t have been attracted to Nelson if she was a man (Knight is heterosexual), and if Knight hadn’t been attracted to her, Jeanne Knight wouldn’t have demanded her termination.  So Nelson argued that “but for” her gender, she would still be employed.

An Iowa district court disagreed with Nelson’s legal conclusion, and so did a unanimous Iowa Supreme Court.  The court, Justice Mansfield writing, conceded the premise of Nelson’s argument (that she wouldn’t have been fired but for her gender),  but the court found that “a distinction exists between (1) an isolated employment decision based on personal relations (assuming no coercion or quid pro quo), even if the relations would not have existed if the employee had been of the opposite gender, and (2) a decision based on gender itself.”

This was a personal decision, the court ruled. Jeanne Knight’s request, and Knight’s acquiescence to it, were driven “entirely by individual feelings and emotions regarding a specific person.”  Indeed, Knight’s entire staff consisted of women, and he replaced Nelson with a woman.  The court emphasized that its ruling would have been different if Knight had terminated several female employees or if Jeanne Knight had requested that he do so.  At a certain point, a jury can infer that personal feelings stem from gender itself, rather than some individual characteristic of an employee.  But this case was about Knight’s personal feelings toward a single employee—Nelson—and Jeanne Knight’s dislike of that employee.

That decision is consistent with similar rulings from two federal courts of appeals (the Eighth and Eleventh Circuits), but this case—now dubbed the “irresistible employee case”—received national attention.  Nelson appeared on Good Morning America shortly after the decision, and she recently had a little fun at Knight’s expense on Comedy Central’s Tosh.0.

Nevertheless, and perhaps because of the national response, Nelson has filed a petition for rehearing on January 3, 2013.  The justices did not ask for a response from Knight, but on Monday Chief Justice Cady issued an order withdrawing the December opinion and stating that the court would resubmit the case, without oral argument, this Wednesday, June 26.  There’s no indication of when the court will issue its new decision, but it could be as early as this Friday, when the court’s 2012-2013 term comes to an end.

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