For once, the patients are making the dentist “Yelp.”
Users have written 22 largely one-star reviews of an Iowa dentist on the social-reviews website Yelp after an all-male Supreme Court gave him the thumbs up for firing a dental assistant he found “irresistible.”
Melissa Nelson, a 32-year-old married mother of two, had worked for James 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 Supreme Court 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."
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Court: Legal to fire employee for being too attractive
On Dec. 21, the court ruled 7-0 that bosses can fire employees they see as an "irresistible attraction," even if the employees have not engaged in flirtatious behavior or otherwise done anything wrong. Yelp users are battling back against the ruling, advising others to look for a dentist without wandering eyes.
“Please, boycott this man,” wrote Juliana S. “He believes his physical attraction to people to be so uncontrollable that he is justified in firing them.”
Others wrote with disturbing personal anecdotes about Knight.
“I went to this dentist when I first moved to Iowa,” said Caroline D. “While his staff was mostly friendly and his office was somewhat clean, HE really gave me the creeps … trust me, don't go to this weirdo, unless you want to feel verrry uncomfortable.”
Such firings may seem unfair, but they are not unlawful discrimination under the Iowa Civil Rights Act because they are motivated by feelings and emotions, not gender, Justice Edward Mansfield wrote.
But Nelson's attorney said Iowa's all-male high court, one of only a handful in the nation, failed to recognize the discrimination that women see routinely in the workplace.
“These judges sent a message to Iowa women that they don't think men can be held responsible for their sexual desires and that Iowa women are the ones who have to monitor and control their bosses' sexual desires," said attorney Paige Fiedler. "If they get out of hand, then the women can be legally fired for it."
An attorney for Knight said the decision, the first of its kind in Iowa, is a victory for family values because Knight fired Melissa Nelson in the interest of saving his marriage, not because she was a woman.
Knight and Nelson -- both married with children -- started exchanging text messages, mostly about personal matters, such as their families. Knight's wife, who also worked in the dental office, found out about the messages and demanded Nelson be fired. The Knights consulted with their pastor, who agreed that terminating Nelson was appropriate.
Knight fired Nelson and gave her one month's severance. He later told Nelson's husband that he worried he was getting too personally attached and feared he would eventually try to start an affair with her.
Nelson was stunned because she viewed the 53-year-old Knight as a father figure and had never been interested in starting a relationship, Fiedler said.
Nelson filed a lawsuit alleging gender discrimination, arguing she would not have been terminated if she was male. She did not allege sexual harassment because Knight's conduct may not have risen to that level and didn't particularly offend her, Fiedler said.
Knight's attorney, Stuart Cochrane, said the court got it right. The decision clarified that bosses can make decisions showing favoritism to a family member without committing discrimination; in this case, by allowing Knight to honor his wife's wishes to fire Nelson, he said.
"While there was really no fault on the part of Mrs. Nelson, it was just as clear the decision to terminate her was not related to the fact that she was a woman," he said. "The motives behind Dr. Knight terminating Mrs. Nelson were quite clear: He did so to preserve his marriage."
The Associated Press contributed to this report.