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Feminspire | April 24, 2014

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Bullshit Logic Wins in Iowa: Fire Women to Avoid Sexually Harassing Them

Bullshit Logic Wins in Iowa: Fire Women to Avoid Sexually Harassing Them

On December 22nd, Melissa Nelson, a dentist’s assistant in Iowa, was fired for being too irresistible for her male boss. Now, she is filing a petition for the Iowa Supreme Court to rehear her case.

Nelson, a 32-year-old with children, had worked for James Knight, a professional dentist, for over ten years. She and Knight held a professional relationship for the entire length of her employment. Reportedly, she and Knight began texting a year and a half before her dismissal, talking about their lives. One message was inappropriate, asking her how “often she experienced orgasm,” to which she did not reply.

Knight then began remarking on Nelson’s clothing, claiming that it was too tight and revealing. Nelson asserted that she wore the same kind of scrubs as other workers employed at his practice. Knight even went so far as to say if his “pants are bulging,” that her clothing was too tight.

Knight’s wife saw the text messages and demanded that he fire her to save their marriage. Knight had a pastor help him prepare a statement to fire her for being “too irresistible.” Nelson then filed a discrimination lawsuit and lost. She appealed with the Iowa Supreme Court and lost again, 7-0. They asserted that her firing did not violate the Iowa Civil Rights Act.

One thing to note is that the Iowa Supreme Court is made up entirely of males. This may have played a big part in the decision to strike down her claim that she was discriminated against in the workplace.

One of Nelson’s arguments is that she “did not do anything to get herself fired except exist as a female.” However, the Court found that this incident “does not amount to unlawful sex discrimination in violation of the Iowa Civil Rights Act.”

After reading the decision for the appeal, which readers can find here, it seems apparent that the court did not understand Nelson’s point of view. She was terminated because she existed as a female and because she was found to be attractive. She indicates that firing someone “to avoid committing sexual harassment should be treated similarly [to sexual harassment].” Knight considered her a threat to his marriage and thought he would sexually harass her if he did not let her go. This stands to create a negative or hostile work environment. He had already commented on her body and her sex life before, so by admitting that he would start to sexually harass her, does that not make her termination a violation under gender discrimination? Evidently, the Supreme Court did not agree.

Another interesting point that has not been discussed at length is whether 1) the case would be found as gender discrimination if it were a woman firing a man, and 2) if the case would be found as gender discrimination if it were a gay employer firing a same-sex employee. I have researched at length and have been unable to find any articles or court proceedings discussing these questions.

After scrutinizing the decision of the appeal, there is no indication whether this would apply in either of the aforementioned situations. In 2009, the Iowa Supreme Court upheld Varnum v. Brien, which said that limiting marriage violated the equal protection clause in Iowa. There is also language in the Iowa Civil Rights Act, stipulating that “both victim and the harasser can be either a woman or a man, and the victim and harasser can be the same sex.”

On January 6th, the Des Moines Register reported that Nelson is asking for the court to rehear her case. It remains to be seen whether they will rehear it or not at this time.

My friend sent me a funny picture the other day from Reddit. It was a link to a book called “7 Basic Needs of a Wife.” One chapter has the following heading: “2. Make sure that your wife meets, interviews, and approves your secretary.” It explains, “technically, a secretary is working for your wife, because she is doing things to assist you that your wife is not able to do.”

Although this book was written in 2010, it embodies the sentiments of decades past. Women should not be discriminated against in the workplace, nor should anyone else. The Iowa Supreme Court did not make the right decision for Nelson, and hopefully they will rehear her case. This decision is a step backwards for women everywhere and sets a precedent for other sexually discriminatory legislature in the future.

Written by Nicole Del Casale

  • Kiana

    I was following this story on the news for a few days. Its just so ridiculous and I feel so sorry for Melissa Nelson. My friend’s mom was fired for a sexual reason as well, but not the same scenario as this.

  • Darth Jader

    So….what you’re saying is that her employer should have resigned himself to working in an uncomfortable work environment at his own practice? Please elaborate how that would in any way be fair to him. The court reached the right decision, though he should have provided her with a good reference and reasonable severance package.

    • Amanda

      He was uncomfortable? He was the one sexually harassing her. I can’t believe you are actually victim blaming here. She wasn’t doing anything to make him uncomfortable unless you honestly believe the ‘poor man’ can’t help himself around a pretty girl, which is a bullshit, made up excuse.

      • Darth Jader

        1) to that point there was not any sexual harassment. 2) His wife clearly had an issue with her working there, and was obviously quite anxious about her being there and their home life was probably becoming quite stressful.

        I’m not victim blaming, I’m acknowledging that it was an ugly situation and it was no fault of Ms. Nelson’s, however I’m also acknowledging one very important fact that you have somehow missed: IT WAS HIS PRACTICE! What were the alternatives? 1) turn the practice over to her and start a new one (yes, that makes aabsolutely perfect sense) 2) live in sexual tension and turmoil in the work place and a stressful life at home which would probably ruin any man or woman, not to mention if he ever did slip up (which would probably happen considering the relationship with the woman he loves would involve constant fighting and misery) he’d lose his entire life to Nelson in court. Or 3) terminate her job, give her some form of compensation and a glowing reference. Option 3 was the best way to resolve an ugly situation that was not in any way Nelson’s fault (oh, wait, she did fuel his desires a year earlier by indulging him, so don’t you think that in a tiny insignificant part she might share a tiny bit of the blame? Sure it was innocent and innocous enough, but isn’t there a rule about keeping social and professional life separate for a reason? Not to mention she also refused to wear scrubs, which all secretaries in all dentist practices do).

        Bottom line is, it was an ugly, sticky situation that had little to do with Nelson’s fault, the most logical and least damaging resolution was arrived at and she suffered (slightly) as a result. Buck up, people get fired for bullshit reasons all the time, I once got fired from a Lab Tech position that carried full benefits & $60,000/yr. For complaining about a female co-worker pinching my (admittedly tight) ass… not the end of the world.

      • Darth Jader

        Yes, you’re absolutely right, the most logical and least harmful solution was not the right choice in this ugly situation. Did you miss the part where his wife (not him) made the decision to fire her?

      • Darth Jader

        Furthermore…when you’re wearing scrubs (believe me, I know) an erection is both very noticeable and very uncomfortable…what’s more is it’s beyond a man’s control (that thing has a mind of its own), and he could get sued for sexual harassment for it…at his own practice. While it’s not her fault, it is his practice, he’s the one that went to school for 7 years, he’s the one that got a business license, he’s the one that pays the liability insurance. If one of them had to go…doesn’t it make just a TINY bit of sense to you that it would be her? Just the slightest bit of sense to that reptilian brain of yours? Why don’t you tell me a better solution, y’know, since you’re all intelligent and stuff…

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  • Guest

    Can’t win either way. To me this doesn’t even fit under sexual harassment laws, or at least shouldn’t. Sexual harassment is a crap concept anyway. That said, I’ve never been a victim, nor would I harass someone else. But it’s really annoying to know that you can’t even find someone attractive these days without it becoming some kind of legal issue. Reaching, grabbing, threatening, yada yada yada, ok fine. But this is on the other side of ridiculous. “You gotta go because [reason X]” should *never* be a valid trigger for prosecution, ever. If the *owner* of a business doesn’t want someone on the premises anymore, then they go bye bye. Doesn’t matter why, he doesn’t need a reason. There’s a stray hair that he/she doesn’t like the color of. Good enough, period. And it should NEVER be worth any money. Sue happy clowns these days, grow up.