Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Jack White -- "I Think I Found the Culprit" (2014)

I think I found the culprit
Looks like you
It must be you

(No, this episode of 2 or 3 lines is not about Ray Rice, who is the culprit du jour of the day as I write this.  I'm writing about a different culprit.)

Do you get most of your world news from stuff that your friends post on Facebook?  

I certainly do.  Let's face it -- daily newspapers and TV network news programs are sooooo 20th century!

So I was intrigued when a Facebook friend posted a link to a Huffington Post article about a recent Iowa Supreme Court decision.  You can click here to read that article, which had this headline:

All-Male Iowa Supreme Court Rules Firing Of Woman For Being Too Attractive Was Legal
You can imagine the outrage that was expressed by my Facebook friends -- especially my female friends.  "Sex discrimination!" they bleated, and some of them made shockingly rude comments concerning those male judges.

Even though I'm a very high-powered Washington lawyer, I have a lot of time on my hands.  (I couldn't write about three songs a week on 2 or 3 lines if I didn't have a lot of time on my hands, now could I?)   So unlike my conclusion-jumping friends. I actually located the Iowa high court's decision and read it all the way through.

In contrast to yours truly, the Huffington Post headline writer didn't have a lot of time on his or her hands -- or at least not enough time to actually read the Iowa Supreme Court decision.  While it's true that all the current members of the Iowa Supreme Court are males, the rest of the Huffington Post headline is just plain wrong.

Click here to read the Iowa Supreme Court opinion for yourself.

Those of you who live on the Left and Right Coasts may be surprised to learn that Iowa -- perhaps the quintessential "heartland" state -- is quite liberal when it comes to politics.  Iowa voters have favored the Democratic candidate in seven of the last eight elections.  And the Iowa Supreme Court has a reputation for being very progressive.

Iowa Supreme Court
For example, in 1868 that court ruled that racially segregated "separate but equal" schools were illegal.  (The U.S. Supreme Court came to the same conclusion 85 years later.)

The very next year, Iowa became the first state in the union to admit women to the practice of law.

And in 2009, Iowa became only the fifth state in the country to strike down a statutory ban on same-sex marriage.  (Massachusetts, Connecticut, California, and Hawaii were the only states to beat Iowa to the punch.)

If you knew all that, you might be suspicious of the Huffington Post headline and the story that accompanied it, which seemed to indicate that the Iowa Supreme Court is populated with right-wing male chauvinist pigs.  But most of you -- especially those of you who live in New York City, San Francisco, Boston, and other centers of condescension toward "Flyoverland" -- don't know all that.  So you probably would have swallowed the HuffPo piece hook, line, and sinker.

To get to the bottom of this story, you have to go back to 1999, when Dr. James Knight of Fort Dodge, Iowa, hired the 20-year-old Melissa Nelson, a recent community college graduate, to work as a dental assistant in his office.

Melissa Nelson
For more than a decade, everyone was happy.  According to Knight, Nelson was a good employee during those years.  According to Nelson, Knight treated her with respect.  She thought of him as a friend and father figure.

(NOTE: There's nothing more depressing for a male of a certain age than hearing himself described as a "friend and father figure" by an attractive young woman.)

In 2009, Nelson and Knight started texting each other outside the workplace.  Knight's wife -- who also worked in his dental practice -- found out about this texting over the holidays.  (Knight took the couple's kids to Colorado for Christmas vacation, while Mrs. Knight stayed home . . . which seems very odd to me.)  When Knight returned home, his wife confronted him and demanded that he fire Nelson because "she was a big threat to our marriage."

Dr. and Mrs. Knight
The Knights consulted with their minister, who agreed that Nelson should be given the boot.  A few days later, Dr. Knight called Nelson into his office -- another minister from the Knights' church was also present on this occasion -- and read a prepared statement to Nelson.  He handed her a month's salary as severance pay. 

The plot thickened that night, when Nelson's husband called Dr. Knight and said, "What the f*ck?" (or words to that effect).  

Knight agreed to meet with Mr. Nelson -- once again, the minister was present -- and told him that nothing had happened between the dentist and his assistant, but that Knight was afraid he would be tempted to have an affair with her if he didn't fire her.

Melissa Nelson sued Dr. Knight for sex discrimination a few months later.  But as both the trial judge and a unanimous Iowa Supreme Court ruled, Nelson had not been fired because she was female but because of the personal relationship that had developed between the two.  Knight had replaced her with another female dental assistant -- in fact, all his assistants were female -- so he clearly wasn't discriminating her on the basis of her gender.   

As one commentator noted,  

What happened seems unfair, for had Nelson not been female Knight wouldn’t have had the feelings he had and she wouldn’t be out of a job. . . . In the end, however, the case reinforces the fact that unfair is one thing and illegally discriminatory is quite another. 

That is exactly correct.  Employers can't fire employees because of race, or sex, or religion, or certain other specified characteristics.  Otherwise, employers are generally free to fire employees for any reason whatsoever -- or no reason at all.  (If the employee has an employment contract, or is a union member, the employers hands are somewhat tied when it comes to firing him or her.)

"I Think I Found the Culprit" is on
Jack White's 2014 Lazaretto album
As I read the court's decision, it hit me that Nelson was blaming the wrong person.  Dr. Knight wasn't responsible for her getting fired.  Dr. Knight's WIFE was the person who got Nelson fired.  

Now that they have a more complete understanding of the history, I think my female Facebook friends -- most of whom are married, and much closer in age to Mrs. Knight than to Ms. Nelson -- are probably seeing this case in an entirely different light.  

If my friends are honest, they will admit that they, too, would go on the warpath if they discovered that their husband is texting outside of work with a young, attractive female employee.

There's one other intriguing -- and amusing -- aspect to this case.

As far as we know, Knight and Nelson kept their hands to themselves.  But it's clear that Mrs. Knight had good reason to be worried about what her hubby was up to, as the following excerpts from the court's opinion will demonstrate:

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.  

(Oh, my!)

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.” 

That is a great line.  I've gotta remember that one.

(Oh, behave!)
But then it gets even better:

Nelson recalls that Dr. Knight once texted her to ask how often she experienced an orgasm. 

You might think that such comments constituted sexual harassment, which is a form of sexual discrimination.  

There are two basic types of sexual harassment.  The first type -- usually referred to as quid pro quo sexual harassment -- occurs when employment or some job benefit (such as a promotion or a salary increase) is conditioned upon an employee providing sexual favors to a supervisor.  

There was clearly no quid pro quo harassment here because Knight never asked for sexual favors from Nelson, much less conditioned her continued employment on his receiving such favors.  

The second type of sexual harassment -- "hostile environment" harassment -- occurs when employees are exposed to unwelcome sexual behavior in the workplace.  I'm talking about dirty jokes, lewd comments, and the like.  

In the words of the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, "harassment is illegal when it is so frequent or severe that it creates a hostile or offensive work environment," but "the law doesn’t prohibit simple teasing, offhand comments, or isolated incidents that are not very serious."  

Knight's conduct might have created a hostile environment if Nelson had found it unwelcome.  But the fundamental weakness in her case was that there was no evidence that she objected to the dentist's conduct or found his comments unwelcome.

In the end, the chief justice of the Iowa high court concluded that Nelson had not been harassed or coerced:

In this case, it is undisputed the relationship was consensual.  If it was not consensual, a turn in the analysis would occur.  Yet, Nelson made no legal or factual claim that a relationship with Dr. Knight was submissive, objectionable, or harassing in any way, and there was no evidence in the record to hint the relationship was not jointly pursued. 

For those of you whose hearts are bleeding for poor Melissa Nelson, let me just say one thing: would any among you care to trade places with Dr. Knight?  I imagine he is on a very short leash, boys and girls.

"I Think I Found the Culprit" was released a few months ago on Jack White's Lazaretto album.  2 or 3 lines has featured well over a dozen songs by White and his various bands, and I have plenty more worthy songs by him in my back pocket.

Click here to listen to the song.

Click below to buy the song from Amazon:

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