Monday, December 24, 2012

I'm a horndog, you're fired

Intellectually, I know that things are getting better for women in this country. But sometimes . . .

Friday, the Iowa Supreme Court held that a male dentist could fire his female assistant for being too attractive.


Dr. James Knight hired Melissa Nelson in 1999 when she was just 20 years old, and everyone agrees that Nelson was a good employee for ten years. Yes, her boss occasionally asked her to put on a lab coat because, "I don’t think it’s good for me to see her wearing things that accentuate her body." And there was that time when he said that she would know her clothes were too tight if his pants were bulging. But they had a good working relationship despite Knight's membership in the Iowa Taliban minor eccentricities, and the two often exchanged friendly texts.

Until Dr. Knight's wife discovered these texts and hauled her horndog husband into a meeting with the pastor. Luckily, the pastor set the good doctor straight and told him to put the blame where it belonged - on Melissa Nelson! Apparently, it's ridiculous to ask a middle-aged professional man to control himself around a pretty woman. So, Dr. Knight and his pastor called Ms. Nelson into the office, Knight read a prepared speech saying that their relationship was hurting his marriage, handed her envelope with one month's pay in cash, and fired her. Yes, humiliated, fired, and one crappy month's severance pay after ten years of employment - you stay classy, Doc!

So many things puzzle me about this story. Did Mrs. Knight spend weeks trying to get her husband to put the professional back in his professional relationship with Mrs. Nelson, or did she just insist that Nelson be terminated immediately? Is it common practice in Iowa to bring human resources decisions to your clergyman rather than, say, an employment lawyer? How much laughing gas did Dr. Knight consume before he told Mrs. Nelson's husband (in the presence of the pastor) that, "he feared he would try to have an affair with her down the road if he did not fire her?" Did these people not understand they were about to end up on in every news outlet in the country?

And the court found . . . for Dr. Knight. I know! WTF?

Here's the thing. I get how the court's decision fits within the rigid definition of the law. Nelson didn't sue for sexual harassment, since she loved her job and didn't consider it the "hostile work environment," the legal standard for harassment. She sued for wrongful termination, saying that she wouldn't have been fired "but for" the fact that she was a woman. Since all of the Dr. Knight's employees were women, and Nelson was replaced by a woman, this argument failed. Also, there is a lot of caselaw (legal precedent) that employees can be fired for having personal relationships with their employers or even, specifically, because the boss's wife is jealous of her husband's attractive employee. As the court pointed out,
Title VII [the federal Civil Rights Act] and the Iowa Civil Rights Act are not general fairness laws, and an employer does not violate them by treating an employee unfairly so long as the employer does not engage in discrimination based upon the employee’s protected status [as a member of a class which has traditionally suffered from discrimination].

Okay, fine. The Courts are not fairness police. But I think it's worth quoting the Iowa Court's summary of Nelson's three arguments in response to this, even in legalese.
First, she does not necessarily agree with Tenge [the precedential case with the most similar fact pattern]. She argues that any termination because of a boss’s physical interest in a subordinate amounts to sex discrimination: "Plaintiff’s sex is implicated by the very nature of the reason for termination." Second, she suggests that without some kind of employee misconduct requirement, Dr. Knight’s position becomes simply a way of enforcing stereotypes and permitting pretexts: The employer can justify a series of adverse employment actions against persons of one gender by claiming, "My spouse thought I was attracted to them." Third, she argues that if Dr. Knight would have been liable to Nelson for sexually harassing her, he should not be able to avoid liability for terminating her out of fear that he was going to harass her.
To summarize these arguments, of course it's discrimination for a boss to fire an employee because he's attracted to her. And of course allowing bosses to do that just permits an end-run around anti-discrimination laws: You're not getting canned for being a woman, you're getting canned because my wife is jealous of you, as a woman. And, if you can't get away with sexually harrassing women, you can't use fear of your own potential to harrass them as a legal basis to fire them.

The court admitted as much when it agreed that the doctor couldn't just use this reasoning to fire all his female employees.
Nelson raises a legitimate concern about a slippery slope. What if Dr. Knight had fired several female employees because he was concerned about being attracted to them? Or what if Ms. Knight demanded out of jealousy that her spouse terminate the employment of several women? The short answer is that those would be different cases. If an employer repeatedly took adverse employment actions against persons of a particular gender because of alleged personal relationship issues, it might well be possible to infer that gender and not the relationship was a motivating factor.
Kinda looks like this all-male court gave the doctor a freebie, no? Since they agreed he couldn't use his jealous wife as a justification to fire all the ladies in his employ, but just this once . . .

You know who else argues that women should dress modestly because men can't control their own desires? And you know who else says women should cover up or leave the workplace? And you know who else blames women when men use their uncontrollable desires to justify sexually harrassing, raping, firing or excluding women from the workplace?
This guy. The religious leader of Iran, the one who believes that women should be legally required to wear a head scarf.

Nice job, Iowa Supreme Court.

Today's $5 goes to the Iowa Women's Foundation, which makes grants to improve the lives of women and girls in Iowa. Because this . . . is bullshit.

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