When a 53-year-old dentist fired his 32-year-old dental assistant Melissa Nelson for being too attractive, he acknowledged she'd been the best dental assistant he'd ever had and a stellar employee for more than 10 years.
She sued -- and lost. Not possible? On December 21, 2012, the Iowa Supreme Court ruled 7-0 that bosses can fire employees they see as an "irresistible attraction," even if the employee never flirted or did anything wrong.
Said Nelson's attorney Paige Fiedler, "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."
Is there more to the story?
According to court transcripts, Knight considered Nelson's tight clothing as distracting, once telling her if his pants were bulging it signaled her clothes were too revealing.
Knight allegedly commented on Nelson's infrequent sex life saying, it was "like having a Lamborghini in the garage and never driving it."
Nelson never complained of harassment, saying she didn't find Knight's comments that offensive and that he generally treated her with respect. Although Nelson denied her clothing was tight or inappropriate, she wore a lab coat over her clothes when asked to by Knight.
Knight and Nelson, both married with children, exchanged text messages, mostly about personal matters, including their families. Although Knight's texts contained sexual innuendos, including one in which he asked Nelson how often she had orgasms, Nelson never flirted back, never responded to the orgasm text and later said she considered Knight a father figure.
When Knight's wife Jeanne, also an employee, found the messages, she demanded her husband fire Nelson, viewing her as a threat to their marriage. Jeanne also said Nelson was "cold" to her and seemed to hang around at work after hours with her husband.
When Knight fired Nelson, he gave her an ungenerous month's severance. He then told Nelson's husband he was getting too personally attached and feared he might try to start an affair with her.
The seven justices, all men, said the basic question presented by the case was "whether an employee who has not engaged in flirtatious conduct may be lawfully terminated simply because the boss views the employee as an irresistible attraction."
They noted prior state and federal cases upholding terminations based on jealousy. In one of those cases, Tenge v. Phillips Modern Ag. Co., an employer fired an employee flirting with him because his wife, also an employee, became jealous.
According to employment attorney Dan Eaton, this is the end of the trail for Nelson's lawsuit.
"The Iowa Supreme Court acknowledges that, if Mrs. Nelson's view of the facts is taken as true, her termination was unfair. However, Ms. Nelson asserted one claim under the Iowa Civil Rights Act. An employer doesn't violate this law by treating an employee unfairly as long as the employer doesn't engage in discrimination based on the employee's protected status. Although gender has protected status; irresistible attractiveness does not and in only a few jurisdictions in the United States do laws protect looks -- whether attractiveness or ugliness."
"The Iowa Supreme Court, as the highest court in Iowa, has the final say on the meaning of Iowa state law. The U.S. Supreme Court does not step in to review whether a state supreme court correctly interprets its state's own law, unless its state law interpretation conflicts with federal law or the U.S. constitution. Additionally, because Nelson didn't assert any other claim, she can't take another bite at the apple and sue Knight with other allegations. Further, she's time-barred from suing under the federal Civil Rights Act."
Was justice done? No.
Knight appears to have done more wrong than Nelson, who potentially just wore attractive clothing and allowed her boss to make offensive comments without complaint. Unfortunately, employees can't fire the boss.
Dr. Lynne Curry is a management-employee trainer and owner of the consulting firm The Growth Company Inc. Send your questions to her at firstname.lastname@example.org. You can follow Lynne on Twitter @lynnecurry10.