So much for the national outcry following the Iowa Supreme Court’s decision upholding the firing of Melissa Nelson. She was the dental assistant fired by Dr. James Knight for supposedly being too attractive and too “irresistible.”
About a month ago, the Court unexpectedly and unusually agreed to give Nelson one more bite of the apple and accepted her motion for reconsideration.
At the time, I posted that a reconsideration “is usually unheard of.” In the case of the Iowa Supreme Court, they’ve granted just five motions in the past 10 years.
But as it turns out, ‘it don’t make no nevermind.’ “You still haven’t come a long way, after all, baby” since the 7 justices on the Iowa Supreme Court again voted unanimously to reaffirm their earlier decision in favor of Dr. Knight. The Court’s reconsideration decision came down Friday, July 12, 2013.
Motions for reconsideration.
Some will wonder, what was the point? Good question. Absent new issues or “highly unusual circumstances,” motions for reconsideration are generally denied. And mere disagreements with a court’s ruling will not support such motions.
So most lawyers know better than to file a motion for reconsideration and run the risk of alienating or annoying the Court by asking for ‘a judicial do-over.’
Worse yet, some Courts may deem such motions “frivolous,” thereby running the chance of judicial sanctions, opposing party attorney’s fees, and contempt penalties. Indeed, a U. S. Southern District Court reiterated that cases concerning such motions have gone unchallenged for so long that it’s “well-settled that Rule 59 is not a vehicle for relitigating old issues, presenting the case under new theories, securing a rehearing on the merits, or otherwise taking a “second bite at the apple”-and we in no way depart from that basic principle.”
So one can only speculate as to why the Iowa Court even took up the reconsideration at all. Also see “The Irresistible Woman Meets The Incorrigible Court: Iowa Supreme …”
. . . got some ‘splainin to do!
In trying to better explain its previous decision, the Iowa State Supreme Court said, “Title VII 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.”
Or as I would tell prospective clients, the law protects employees from unlawful workplace conduct but not from unfair jerks you happen to work for — or from what Stanford Business School Professor Bob Sutton calls “assholes” in the workplace.
Firing someone because you lack self-control.
The reason Dr. Knight fired the 33-year old Nelson was because “he was worried he was getting too personally attached to her” and “feared he would try to have an affair with her down the road if he did not fire her.”
So much for not trusting your self-control. And from the facts in the case, it also appeared that Dr. Knight’s wife, Jeanne, didn’t much trust hubby’s self-control either.
She’s the one that wanted Nelson’s job termination. And no matter that Nelson had worked there for more than a decade or that Dr. Knight said she “was a good dental assistant.” Jeanne Knight perceived her husband’s relationship with Nelson as a threat to their marriage. So the result was a prophylactic termination.
Nelson filed a civil rights complaint and obtained a “right to sue” letter from the Iowa Civil Rights Commission. In hindsight, perhaps Nelson’s principal obstacle was in not contending Dr. Knight had sexually harassed her. Instead, her one-count petition only alleged the dentist had discriminated against her on the basis of sex (gender).
She argued that her gender was a motivating factor in her termination because she wouldn’t have lost her job if she had been a man.
And yet, Nelson did not show she was terminated because she didn’t conform to a particular sex (gender) stereotype – a claim allowed under Price Waterhouse v. Hopkins where the U.S. Supreme Court had said that “[i]n the specific context of sex stereotyping, an employer who acts on the basis of a belief that a woman cannot be aggressive, or that she must not be, has acted on the basis of gender.”
The nation’s highest court ruled this impermissible — something even the Iowa Court acknowledged when it quoted Price Waterhouse’s, “we are beyond the day when an employer could evaluate employees by assuming or insisting that they matched the stereotype associated with their group.”
Nevertheless, it was all unavailing. Nelson didn’t make that argument or make a case she’d been sexually harassed. And the Court said as much, “The employee did not bring a sexual harassment or hostile work environment claim.”
And while Nelson did argue “that a firing by a boss to avoid committing sexual harassment should be treated similarly,” the Court wasn’t buying it.
In summing up, the Court said “an isolated decision to terminate an employee before such an [hostile work] environment arises, even if the reasons for termination are unjust, by definition does not bring about that [abusive] atmosphere.”
And concluding, the Court wrote, “the issue before us is not whether a jury could find that Dr. Knight treated Nelson badly. We are asked to decide only if a genuine fact issue exists as to whether Dr. Knight engaged in unlawful gender discrimination when he fired Nelson at the request of his wife.”
The Court’s answer was that Dr. Knight’s conduct was not unlawful discrimination.
Photo Credits: Medieval dentist removing tooth, by Johann Liss, at Wikipedia Commons, public domain; “biteof an apple,” by regel zamora at Flickr via Creative Commons-license requiring attribution;”104/365 I love the dentist,” by Betsssssy at Flickr via Creative Commons-license requiring attribution;”More job opportunities,” by Lewis Minor at Flickr via Creative Commons-license requiring attribution; “How to be a proper bloke,” at Flickr via Creative Commons-license requiring attribution, via Duncan Hull.