The Iowa Supreme Court ruled on Friday that employers in the state can legally fire workers they find too attractive.
In a unanimous decision, the court held that a dentist did not violate the state’s civil rights act when he terminated a female dental assistant whom his wife considered a threat to their marriage.
The dental assistant, Melissa Nelson, who worked for dentist James Knight for more than 10 years and had never flirted with him, according to the testimony of both parties, sued, saying she would not have been fired if she were a man.
At trial, Knight testified he had complained to Nelson on several occasions that her clothing was too tight, revealing and “distracting.”
But sometime in 2009, he also began exchanging text messages with Nelson. Most of these were work-related and harmless, according to testimony. But others were more suggestive, including one in which Knight asked Nelson how often she had an orgasm. She never answered the text.
In late 2009, Knight’s wife found out about the text exchanges and demanded her husband terminate the dental assistant because “she was a big threat to our marriage.”
In early 2010, he fired her, saying their relationship had become a detriment to his family.
Nelson sued, saying that she had done nothing wrong, that she considered Knight a friend and father figure, and that she would not have been terminated but for her gender.
Knight argued that Nelson was terminated not because of her gender — all the employees of his practice are women — but because of the way their relationship had developed and the threat it posed to his marriage.
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.”
The high court ruled that bosses can fire workers they find too attractive and that such actions do not amount to unlawful discrimination.
The case was Melissa Nelson v. James H. Knight DDS, PC and James Knight.