Woman fired for sex appeal: Unfair, but not gender bias, Iowa court rules

An Iowa dentist did not unlawfully discriminate when he fired an employee he found attractive, fearing they might have an extramarital affair, the Iowa Supreme Court ruled Friday in a case examining a murky area of employment law. 

Courtesy of Melissa Nelson/AP
This undated photo provided by Melissa Nelson shows Melissa in clothes she wore to work as a dental assistant in Fort Dodge, Iowa. The Iowa Supreme Court on Friday, July 12, stood by its ruling that a dentist acted legally when he fired an assistant because he found her too attractive and worried they would have an extramarital affair.

An Iowa dentist did not engage in unlawful gender discrimination when he fired his assistant after concluding she was so attractive that he feared they might have an extramarital affair, the Iowa Supreme Court ruled on Friday.

The seven justices, all male, threw out a gender discrimination lawsuit, saying that the dentist’s actions may have been unfair to the longtime female employee, but that his conduct did not amount to sex discrimination.

The assistant was fired after the dentist’s wife concluded that the attractive employee had become a threat to the couple’s marriage. The jealous spouse demanded the assistant be terminated.

The case is important because it examines the scope of protections against gender discrimination in a murky area of employment law.

Melissa Nelson worked for more than 10 years as a dental assistant for Dr. James Knight, a dentist in Fort Dodge, Iowa. The two, who are both married with children, were friendly at work and allegedly began to engage in workplace banter and off-hours texting. Some of their private communications were highly personal and sexual in nature, according to the decision. Dr. Knight said he sometimes told Nelson that she was wearing tight-fitting clothing that he found distracting.

At one point, according to a statement in the record made by Knight, Nelson commented about the infrequency of her sex life. The dentist said he responded to her: “That’s like having a Lamborghini in the garage and never driving it.”

Nelson denied ever flirting with the dentist or hinting at an intimate relationship with him. She said her clothing was not too revealing.

Eventually, Knight’s wife, Jeanne, discovered the texts and confronted her husband. She insisted that Nelson had become a “big threat to our marriage” and must be fired, the decision recounts.

The couple consulted a senior pastor at their church seeking guidance on the issue.

In firing Nelson, Knight said that his relationship with her had become a detriment to Knight’s family and that for the best interests of both families, Knight and Nelson should no longer work together.

He gave Nelson one-month’s severance pay.

Knight later told Nelson’s husband, Steve, that there had been no inappropriate conduct between the two, but that he was worried that he was getting too personally attached to Nelson.

He said he “feared he would try to have an affair with her down the road if he did not fire her,” according to the court decision.

“The issue before us is not whether a jury could find that Dr. Knight treated Nelson badly,” Justice Edward Mansfield wrote for the court. The only issue before the court was whether the dentist violated the state’s gender discrimination law.

“Nelson argues that her gender was a motivating factor in her termination because she would not have lost her job if she had been a man,” Justice Mansfield said.

Nelson’s arguments warrant serious consideration, he wrote. But the justices concluded that there is a difference between an employment decision based on personal relations and a decision based on gender itself.

“In the former case, the decision is driven entirely by individual feelings and emotions regarding a specific person,” Mansfield said. “Such a decision is not gender-based, nor is it based on factors that might be a proxy for gender.”

The court said civil rights laws are designed to ensure that workers are treated the same regardless of their gender. Nothing in Knight’s actions undercut that mandate, the court said.

The justices noted that there had been no allegations of sexual harassment or of a hostile work environment. Instead, Knight’s decision to fire Nelson had stemmed from a consensual workplace relationship.

The Iowa high court had issued a similar ruling in the same case in December. In an unusual move, the court vacated that decision to reconsider the issue.

The case is Nelson v. Knight (11-1857).

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