UPDATE: 'Irresistible' woman asks court to rehear firing

2013-01-05T10:15:00Z 2013-07-12T09:32:31Z UPDATE: 'Irresistible' woman asks court to rehear firing Waterloo Cedar Falls Courier
January 05, 2013 10:15 am

DES MOINES (AP) --- A dental assistant fired because her boss thought she was too attractive wants the Iowa Supreme Court to reconsider its decision rejecting her discrimination lawsuit.

Melissa Nelson's attorney asked the all-male court Friday to withdraw its Dec. 21 ruling, which she called a "significant blow to gender equality."

The court ruled that Nelson's firing by Fort Dodge dentist James Knight might've been unfair but wasn't illegal. The court ruled that firings of employees who are an "irresistible attraction" to bosses do not violate the Iowa Civil Rights Act because they're motivated by emotion, not gender.

Nelson's filing says the court erred because her gender played a role in her termination.

Knight said he fired Nelson because he'd grown too close to her and worried he'd try to start an affair.

EARLIER STORY

IOWA CITY, Iowa (AP) --- A dentist acted legally when he fired an assistant that he found attractive simply because he and his wife viewed the woman as a threat to their marriage, the all-male Iowa Supreme Court ruled Friday.

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. Such firings may be 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.

An attorney for Fort Dodge dentist James 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.

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."

Nelson, 32, worked for 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 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."

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 argued Nelson was fired not because of her gender, but because her continued employment threatened his marriage. A district judge agreed, dismissing the case before trial, and the high court upheld that ruling.

Mansfield noted that Knight had an all-female workforce and Nelson was replaced by a woman.

He said the decision was in line with state and federal court rulings that found workers can be fired for relationships that cause jealousy and tension within a business owner's family. One such case from the 8th Circuit Court of Appeals upheld a business owner's firing of a valued employee who was seen by his wife as a threat to their marriage. In that case, the fired employee had engaged in flirtatious conduct.

Mansfield said allowing Nelson's lawsuit would stretch the definition of discrimination to allow anyone fired over a relationship to file a claim arguing they would not have been fired but for their gender.

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.

Knight is a religious and moral individual, and he sincerely believed that firing Nelson would be best for all parties, 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.

"I don't view this as a decision that was either pro-women or opposed to women rights at all. In my view, this was a decision that followed the appropriate case law."

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(12) Comments

  1. Reallife
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    Reallife - January 05, 2013 11:39 am
    Unigrad and helloall had the only intelligent comments. Feel free to whine about it, but you all voted judges out too. To be honest, yea it sucks that she got fired, but if it was a workplace like that, would you even want to be employed there? Iowa is a right to work state, which means exactly the opposite. You can be fired at any time for any reason. I dont like you, youre fired. Simple as that
  2. helloall
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    helloall - December 31, 2012 10:09 am
    sucks but life is not fair move on
  3. UNIGrad99
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    UNIGrad99 - December 27, 2012 10:09 pm
    No, because Iowa is a right to work state, so you can leave any time you want, as long as you don't have a contract. The owner of a company cannot choose to work somewhere else. I don't see why everyone is saying, "this guy needs to worry about getting his marriage right, no passing the blame on someone else". Duh, he is, he realizes he and his wife have things to work on, and he took an action to make it better. Lets not forget he gave her a month's severence pay, and I'm guessing if she can't find another job and files for unemployment he's not going to contest it. It's not like he fired her and made up some fake reason. Have to agree with Joe too, attractiveness is not a protected class, and he didn't fire her simply because she is a woman.
  4. hrgrosser
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    hrgrosser - December 27, 2012 1:09 pm
    So, using this logic should I be able to leave a job AND collect unemployment if my attractive female boss poses a "threat" to MY marriage?

  5. reojoe
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    reojoe - December 27, 2012 12:57 pm
    Like it or lump it, it provides a PERFECT example of what discrimination is LEGALLY. In Iowa, you can fire anyone for any reason that you choose, as long as it's not for race, sex age, physical status, sexual orientation, religion, or ethnicity/national origin.

    Anyone recall the guy from last year in Illinois who was fired for wearing a Packers tie to work? Same exact situation.
  6. truthyness
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    truthyness - December 25, 2012 6:36 am
    Remember, Vander Plaats had convinced Iowans to vote out three judges two years ago, including one woman, who were being fair in their rulings and that may have changed the outcome. So now the court is made up of more conservative leaning judges appointed by Branstad, Ruling doesn't surprise me too much.
  7. Tangent
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    Tangent - December 25, 2012 12:33 am
    Iowa was doing so good for progressive equality... until now. Now we are going to be the laughing stock of the nation. To think, we voted to retain these judges because we agreed they were fair. This is pathetic.
  8. Cecil Wrage
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    Cecil Wrage - December 24, 2012 6:13 pm
    Only in Iowa with a all male court. From my own experience I can say jealousy and distrust will destroy a marriage. I'll give them 5 ,years.
  9. john315
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    john315 - December 24, 2012 1:02 pm
    "The Knights consulted with their pastor, who agreed that terminating Nelson was appropriate."
    WHAT??? Shouldn't the Pastor recommend the Knights work on strengthening their marriage" instead of casing blame? Glad to see the moral fiber and ethics of the church are in full working order.
  10. laurajordan
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    laurajordan - December 23, 2012 8:41 am
    To me, this is an example of someone refusing to take personal responsibility for controlling themselves and placing the blame on the other person. If the problem is that he finds her "irresistible", what was she supposed to do with that? Why is that her fault, and what was she expected to do to remedy that situation?

    And where does this stop, do we start evaluating women according to their "hotness" before they can enter the workforce? If they're found to be too "irresistible" does this create another kind of glass ceiling?
  11. pacerintl
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    pacerintl - December 22, 2012 12:56 am
    This is crazy...ridiculous.
  12. Dave88
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    Dave88 - December 21, 2012 6:14 pm
    Crazy! Another move that puts the blame on someone else other then the person committing the act. In this case because the employee is to attractive then it is her fault. God forbid we should expect the Leader to respect the rules of marriage. I,just do not understand why in this country we do not want to hold people accountable for their actions. It's the Guns fault not the shooters! What a shame.
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