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The Dentist and the Hottie

The result of an Iowa Supreme Court case can be interpreted as evidence of gender bias.

In Fort Dodge, almost the heart of Iowa, Melissa Nelson, a 20-year-old girl who had just received her community college degree, was hired by Doctor James H. Knight as a dental assistant.

Doctor Knight was married at the time. Indeed, his wife also worked in his office. Melissa was a very attractive young lady. During her employment she married and had several children of her own. There is no question, I say without intending any sarcasm, that she was a good dental assistant, for so Doctor Knight testified.

Nelson worked for Doctor Knight for ten-and-a-half years. During that time she and the doctor became friends and sometimes corresponded by email about their children.

There is no suggestion that they had any sexual contact whatever, nor that they ever flirted. However, to quote from the opinion of the Iowa Supreme Court (Nelson v. James H Knight DDS, PC, No.  11-1857 (2012)), "On several occasions during the last year and a half when (sic) 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 [which she did]. 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 denied that she dressed inappropriately.

Nelson claimed that she considered Dr. Knight as a father figure, but Dr. Knight was obviously getting turned on through no particular fault of Nelson's, other than he found her attractive. He pointed out to Nelson that ”if she saw his pants bulging, she would know her clothing was too revealing.” The opinion also noted that “Dr Knight also recalls that after Nelson allegedly made a statement regarding infrequency in her sex life, he responded “[T]hat’s like having a Lamborghini in the garage and never driving it.”

What to do? The dentist and his wife Jeanne consulted with the senior pastor of their church. Then Dr. Knight called Nelson into his office, in the presence of another pastor, and fired Nelson, telling her in a note ‘that their relationship had become a detriment to Dr. Knight’s family and that for the best interest of both Dr. Knight and his family and Nelson and her family, the two of them should not work together. He "ungenerously" (to quote the decision) included one month’s severance pay.

Nelson brought suit under the Iowa Civil Rights statute. The lower court dismissed her suit because “Ms Nelson was fired not because of her gender but because she was threat (sic) to the marriage of Dr. Knight.” Nelson appealed to the Iowa Supreme Court, which agreed with the lower court.

Not surprisingly, the Iowa Supreme Court consists of a panel of seven men and no women. Although not part of the record, it is likely that both pastors referred to were also men. Iowa may be where the tall corn grows and politics is a vital industry, but it is certainly not a state in which the rights of women are recognized. Keep ‘em down on the farm, but beware of tight jeans.

While law is often taught in law school as if it was a science, i.e., if you only analyze the precedents correctly you will get the right result, the fact is, as every lawyer with reasonable experience knows, the result is often due to the skill of the lawyers arguing the case, the predisposition of the jury, or in an appellate case, the predisposition of the judges. “Predisposition” is not used to mean here that either judge or jury had any pre-knowledge of the case before it was heard. Rather, it is like pumpkin. If you don’t like the taste of pumpkin, it is probable that you will not like pumpkin pie or any other dessert prepared with pumpkin in it.

This is not to suggest that the judges on the Iowa Supreme Court don’t like women. They probably do. But like me when I was a teen (I went to an all boys high school), they see women as objects of desire, not merely people who look differently then we men do. Had the doctor’s wife not liked black people and insisted that the doctor fire his black dental assistant merely because she was black, the point would have been clear.

Somewhat more than half the people in the world are women. For eons, women have surrendered to the power of men. But no longer. In practically a blink of a mascara-ed eyelid, they have achieved the right to vote in every country that even passes for a democracy. They no longer have to tolerate (except, perhaps, in Iowa) being letched over by cavemen such as Dr. Knight who don’t understand the difference between being beautiful and being interested.

I would say that Mrs. Knight has a lot more to worry about than Ms. Nelson, even in Iowa.

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