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Nelson v. Knight

Supreme Court of Iowa

July 12, 2013


Appeal from the Iowa District Court for Webster County, Thomas J. Bice, Judge.

A former employee appeals from the district court's grant of summary judgment to an employer in a sex discrimination case.

Paige E. Fiedler and Emily E. McCarty of Fiedler & Timmer, P.L.L.C., Urbandale, for appellant.

Stuart J. Cochrane and James L. Kramer of Johnson, Kramer, Good, Mulholland, Cochrane & Driscoll, P.L.C., Fort Dodge, for appellees.

MANSFIELD, Justice. [1]

Can a male employer terminate a long-time female employee because the employer's wife, due to no fault of the employee, is concerned about the nature of the relationship between the employer and the employee? This is the question we are required to answer today. For the reasons stated herein, we ultimately conclude the conduct does not amount to unlawful sex discrimination in violation of the Iowa Civil Rights Act.

We emphasize the limits of our decision. The employee did not bring a sexual harassment or hostile work environment claim; we are not deciding how such a claim would have been resolved in this or any other case. Also, when an employer takes an adverse employment action against a person or persons because of a gender-specific characteristic, that can violate the civil rights laws. The record in this case, however, does not support such an allegation.

I. Facts and Procedural Background.

Because this case was decided on summary judgment, we set forth the facts in the light most favorable to the plaintiff, Melissa Nelson.

In 1999, Dr. Knight[2] hired Nelson to work as a dental assistant in his dental office. At that time, Nelson had just received her community college degree and was twenty years old.

Over the next ten-and-a-half years, Nelson worked as a dental assistant for Dr. Knight. Dr. Knight admits that Nelson was a good dental assistant. Nelson in turn acknowledges that Dr. Knight generally treated her with respect, and she believed him to be a person of high integrity.

On several occasions during the last year and a half when Nelson worked in the office, Dr. Knight complained to Nelson that her clothing was too tight and revealing and "distracting." Dr. Knight at times asked Nelson to put on her lab coat. Dr. Knight later testified that he made these statements to Nelson because "I don't think it's good for me to see her wearing things that accentuate her body." Nelson denies that her clothing was tight or in any way inappropriate.[3]

During the last six months or so of Nelson's employment, Dr. Knight and Nelson started texting each other on both work and personal matters outside the workplace. Both parties initiated texting. Neither objected to the other's texting. Both Dr. Knight and Nelson have children, and some of the texts involved updates on the kids' activities and other relatively innocuous matters. Nelson considered Dr. Knight to be a friend and father figure, and she denies that she ever flirted with him or sought an intimate or sexual relationship with him. At the same time, Nelson admits that a coworker was "jealous that we got along." At one point, Nelson texted Dr. Knight that "[t]he only reason I stay is because of you."

Dr. Knight acknowledges he once told Nelson that if she saw his pants bulging, she would know her clothing was too revealing. On another occasion, Dr. Knight texted Nelson saying the shirt she had worn that day was too tight. After Nelson responded that she did not think he was being fair, Dr. Knight replied that it was a good thing Nelson did not wear tight pants too because then he would get it coming and going. Dr. Knight also recalls that after Nelson allegedly made a statement regarding infrequency in her sex life, he responded to her, "[T]hat's like having a Lamborghini in the garage and never driving it." Nelson recalls that Dr. Knight once texted her to ask how often she experienced an orgasm. Nelson did not answer the text. However, Nelson does not remember ever telling Dr. Knight not to text her or telling him that she was offended.

In late 2009, Dr. Knight took his children to Colorado for Christmas vacation. Dr. Knight's wife Jeanne, who was also an employee in the dental practice, stayed home. Jeanne Knight found out that her husband and Nelson were texting each other during that time. When Dr. Knight returned home, Jeanne Knight confronted her husband and demanded that he terminate Nelson's employment. Both of them consulted with the senior pastor of their church, who agreed with the decision.

Jeanne Knight insisted that her husband terminate Nelson because "she was a big threat to our marriage." According to her affidavit and her deposition testimony, she had several complaints about Nelson. These included Nelson's texting with Dr. Knight, Nelson's clothing, Nelson's alleged flirting with Dr. Knight, Nelson's alleged coldness at work toward her (Jeanne Knight), and Nelson's ongoing criticism of another dental assistant. She added that

[Nelson] liked to hang around after work when it would be just her and [Dr. Knight] there. I thought it was strange that after being at work all day and away from her kids and husband that she would not be anxious to get home like the other [women] in the office.

At the end of the workday on January 4, 2010, Dr. Knight called Nelson into his office. He had arranged for another pastor from the church to be present as an observer. Dr. Knight, reading from a prepared statement, told Nelson he was firing her. The statement said, in part, that their relationship had become a detriment to Dr. Knight's family and that for the best interests of both Dr. Knight and his family and Nelson and her family, the two of them should not work together. Dr. Knight handed Nelson an envelope which contained one month's severance pay. Nelson started crying and said she loved her job.

Nelson's husband Steve phoned Dr. Knight after getting the news of his wife's firing. Dr. Knight initially refused to talk to Steve Nelson, but later called back and invited him to meet at the office later that same evening. Once again, the pastor was present. In the meeting, Dr. Knight told Steve Nelson that Melissa Nelson had not done anything wrong or inappropriate and that she was the best dental assistant he ever had. However, Dr. Knight said he was worried he was getting too personally attached to her. Dr. Knight told Steve Nelson that nothing was going on but that he feared he would try to have an affair with her down the road if he did not fire her.

Dr. Knight replaced Nelson with another female. Historically, all of his dental assistants have been women.

After timely filing a civil rights complaint and getting a "right to sue" letter from the Iowa Civil Rights Commission, Nelson brought this action against Dr. Knight on August 12, 2010. Nelson's one-count petition alleges that Dr. Knight discriminated against her on the basis of sex. Nelson does not contend that her employer committed sexual harassment. See McElroy v. State, 637 N.W.2d 488, 499–500 (Iowa 2001) (discussing when sexual harassment amounts to unlawful sex discrimination and restating the elements of both quid pro quo and hostile work environment sexual harassment). Her argument, rather, is that Dr. Knight terminated her because of her gender and would not have terminated her if she was male.

Dr. Knight moved for summary judgment. After briefing and oral argument, the district court sustained the motion. The court reasoned in part, "Ms. Nelson was fired not because of her gender but because she was threat to the marriage of Dr. Knight." Nelson appeals.

II. Standard of Review.

We review the district court's summary judgment ruling for correction of errors at law. Pecenka v. Fareway Stores, Inc., 672 N.W.2d 800, 802 (Iowa 2003). We view the factual record in the light most favorable to the nonmoving party, affording that party all reasonable inferences. Id. Summary judgment is proper only if ...

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