Last week, Iowa’s all-male high court upheld the legality of terminating a female employee because her boss found her too attractive.
Iowa dentist James Knight fired his assistant, Melissa Nelson, after a decade-long tenure because he found her “irresistible” and said he would be likely to have an affair with her if he kept her on the payroll, according to the court’s opinion.
In 2009, Knight’s wife Jeanne demanded that her husband fire his 32-year-old assistant Melissa Nelson after she found out the two sometimes exchanged text messages, according to court documents.
For his part, Knight said he found Nelson’s clothes “distracting,” saying, “I don’t think it’s good for me to see her wearing things that accentuate her body.” Nelson denied wearing inappropriate attire and said she put on a coat when Knight complained about what she was wearing, say the court documents.
The couple’s pastor supported the decision to terminate Nelson although Knight said she was “the best dental assistant he ever had," the court's opinion said.
Nelson sued on the grounds that she was fired because of her gender, while Knight’s lawyers argued that the termination was because of the relationship between the two. The court sided with Knight’s argument, noting that legal precedent found it acceptable for a boss to fire a worker due to a spouse’s jealousy. The court also said Knight didn’t discriminate against women as a class. He had other female employees, and replaced Nelson with another woman.
“It opens up a really disturbing door,” said Brad Seligman, an attorney who represented plaintiffs in a Wal-Mart gender discrimination class-action suit alleging company-wide discrimination against female workers regarding pay and promotions.
Seligman said that argument wouldn’t fly if the case was in the federal court system. “Here it’s quite clear that the woman was being perceived as a threat because she was a woman,” he said. The termination was “a decision that’s totally based on gender.”
Since Nelson's case was tried in and argued based on case law from the state court system, she has little legal recourse at this point, Seligman said. "It's probably the end of the line for this plaintiff."
Knight erred by not having policies in writing addressing employee dress code and behavior, said Amy N. Letke, founder and CEO of Integrity HR. “It’s really important, when you’re the business owner, to set the tone with what’s OK.”
“People who work hard to be attractive and high performers are typically rewarded,” said Letke. “She was punished.”