I sincerely hope that, when Dr. James Knight, DDS returns to work after the holidays and tells his patients to “spit,” at least a few of them aim for his face. Dr. Knight, as you may have heard, is the Iowa dentist who fired his assistant in 2010 for being “irresistible.” The Iowa Supreme Court ruled last Friday that the firing, while certainly “unfair” to the employee, did not violate state anti-discrimination law. What drives me crazy is that I can’t fault the court’s legal analysis. The entire opinion in Nelson v. James H. Knight DDS, P.C. is online, and it’s only 16 pages. Go read it for yourself.
The shortened version of the story is that, after nearly ten years working with her, Dr. Knight began to inform his dental assistant, Melissa Nelson, that he considered her workplace attire inappropriate. Specifically, her clothes were either too revealing or too tight, although Nelson denied dressing inappropriately for a Midwestern dental practice. In mid-2009, he began a platonic text message correspondence with Nelson, who said that she viewed Knight as a “friend and father figure.” In late 2009, Mrs. Knight, who also worked at the dental practice, discovered the correspondence. Concerned over how this would affect their marriage, they decided, in consultation with their pastor, to fire Nelson.
Nelson sued Knight and his dental practice for gender discrimination under state law. She did not claim sexual harassment, and stated that her communications with Knight never made her uncomfortable, despite this:
Nelson, 32, worked for Knight for 10 years, and he considered her a stellar worker. But in the final months of her employment, he complained that her tight clothing was distracting, once telling her that if his pants were bulging that was a sign her clothes were too revealing, according to the opinion.
He also once allegedly remarked about her infrequent sex life by saying, “that’s like having a Lamborghini in the garage and never driving it.”
The central question is whether Knight fired his dental assistant of ten years primarily because of her gender. As Katy Waldman notes at Slate, this case affirms that an employer can fire an employee for any number of nutty reasons:
[Y]ielding to an employer’s irrational preferences—so long as they aren’t explicitly rooted in race, color, religion, sex or national origin—comes with the territory of office work. You can get canned because your laugh grates on your boss’s nerves. Or because he or she misinterpreted something you said. Or, yes, because he or she finds you attractive and would rather not deal.
The court’s conclusion was that Knight’s main motivation was not gender bias, but rather concern for his marriage. As tempting as it is to throw one’s briefcase in the air and scream “This whole trial is out of order!!!!!!” (I haven’t practiced law in a little while, but I’m pretty sure you still can’t actually do this), the court actually has legal precedent behind it, more or less. It relied on Tenge v. Phillips Modern Ag Co., 446 F. 3d 903, 908 (8th Cir. 2006), where the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals held that “‘sexual favoritism,’ where one employee was treated more favorably than members of the opposite sex because of a consensual relationship with the boss,” does not violate Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. If it is not discrimination to treat an employee more favorably under those circumstances, the court seems to be saying, it is also not discrimination to treat an employee less favorably.
Both the court and Dr. Knight acknowledged that Nelson did nothing wrong. That’s what is so infuriating about the decision, because it put Nelson’s employment at the mercy of Knight’s libido and Mrs. Knight’s tolerance for jealousy. It is worth noting that the Knights made the decision to fire Nelson in consultation with their pastor, who agreed that firing her was the best way to go. I’m not going to bother trying to identify their church, but I do hope that the people in Knight’s community make their feelings known.
Nelson argues that she would not have been fired if she weren’t a woman. With the information at hand, though, we don’t really know that. Who is to say that Dr. Knight’s wife would not have felt similarly threatened by an attractive young male assistant? (Picture Kellan Lutz, then try to get any work done.) That’s probably not the argument Knight’s attorneys were trying to make, but like I said, we don’t know that.
The bottom line of this case is that lawful acts are not always right, and that our legal system cannot always mediate between right and wrong. It may be possible to modify the law to allow the possibility of legal redress for the more overtly douchey scenarios like this, but for the time being, this is a case that fell through the cracks of anti-discrimination law. My concern is that an employer might justify otherwise unlawful firings by claiming flirtation. It would take a uniquely douchey boss to do that, but they aren’t exactly in short supply.
Photo credit: ‘Girls dressed up as nurses’ by Szater (Own work) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons; ‘Kellan Lutz, 2012′ by Joella Marano, uploade by MyCanon (Kellan Lutz) [CC BY-SA 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons.