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Can You Be Fired for Being 'Irresistible'?

Iowa’s Supreme Court says it is just cause for termination.

In 2010, Iowa dentist James Knight fired Melissa Nelson, his dental assistant of 10 years, because she had become a “detriment” to his family. For the sake of both of their families, they could no longer work together. Knight and his wife, fairly or not, found Nelson to be a threat to their marriage. Though he has said she was the best dental assistant he ever had, he apparently found the nature of their relationship to be a perceived threat to his marriage and feared he would try to have an affair in the future if he did not fire her.

In 2009, Knight and Nelson, both married, began exchanging personal texts. The Supreme Court documents outline that though Knight felt Nelson’s clothing was “too tight”, she considered him to be a friend and father figure. Nelson “denies that she ever flirted with him or sought an intimate or sexual relationship with him.” According to CNN.com, Knight's wife, who was employed at the same dental office, found out about those messages in late 2009 and demanded he fire Nelson. 

In early 2010, in the presence of a pastor, Knight fired Nelson with one month’s severance pay.

Knight has stated she was not fired because of her gender; in fact, Nelson was replaced with another female dental assistant.

Nelson filed a lawsuit claiming she had been fired because of her gender, though she did not make claims of sexual harassment. 

A district court found that Knight was within his rights as an employer to fire Nelson. The all-male Supreme Court of Iowa last week agreed stating that there was no evidence of “sex discrimination in violation of the Iowa Civil Rights Act.”

Justice Edward M. Mansfield wrote: "Can a male employer terminate a female employee because the employer’s wife, due to no fault of the employee, is concerned about the nature of the relationship between the employer and the employee?" 

The Iowa Supreme Court voted unanimously that Nelson’s gender was not a factor in her  termination.

“... the issue before us is not whether a jury could find that Dr. Knight treated Nelson badly. We are asked to decide only if a genuine fact issue exists as to whether Dr. Knight engaged in unlawful gender discrimination when he fired Nelson at the request of his wife. For the reasons previously discussed, we believe this conduct did not amount to unlawful discrimination, and therefore we affirm the judgment of the district court."

What do you think? Did the Supreme Court skirt around issues of gender discrimination and harassment? Is it fair to terminate employment because of an employer’s lack of self control? Will this case set further precedent of harassment cloaked in the sanctity of marriage? Or did Dr. Knight do the right thing?

r patton December 29, 2012 at 03:54 PM
Two items: 1. The dentist "wanted" her and she said NO. 2. The wife saw what was happening and she told the dentist to get rid of her or the wife would take every penny he had and leave him. That's all I have to say about that.
Tammy Osier December 29, 2012 at 04:10 PM
I've noticed that the "dress code" in the workplace is seldom enforced these days. It says the clothing was a bit tight. Enforcing a decent dress code initially might have helped, but this seems to be a bit ridiculous, especially to bring the Supreme Court into it. Sounds like the man can't run his office in a professional manner. Not sure I'd want to work for someone like that anyway.
Amy December 29, 2012 at 06:11 PM
She should have been fired. She did things to encourage the married man to be attracted to her. I'm a very attractive woman (so I'm told) and I find that married men are especially attracted to me. So I do everything to make them not attracted to me.
Tammy Osier December 29, 2012 at 06:44 PM
Upon reading the complaint, the things she admitted to, show that she did indeed violated her contract. He was just as guilty for not enforcing it and playing along in his texts to her (very personal). The texts were both sexually charged, on both sides (started to post here but decided not to- very explicit). He told her to wear her lab coat if she wasn't going to adhere to the dress code. All he had to do was make a dress code and enforce it. It was his office and he could have legally fired her for insubordination. You bend over patients a lot, and it would not have been unreasonable to have it in place. But both were playing the game. Both were guilty. Too bad we have to waste the time of the courts over stupid crap like this.
Tammy Osier December 29, 2012 at 06:54 PM
@ R patton - read the whole complaint. You'll get and earful. A lot more to the story than a little patch blurb.
Mr. B December 29, 2012 at 07:16 PM
Really? Why just married men? What specifically do you do to make yourself unattractive? Just curious!
Gail Lane December 29, 2012 at 10:57 PM
I think the problem I have is if the doctor had just said "You're fired" then that would've been that. Right to work and all that - call it DONE. But he didn't. He fired her and told her that it was because she was a hazard to his marriage because HE felt he would indulge in an affair in the future. And that was pretty dumb. I dunno ... We've discussed this at home. Is it really her fault that he found her attractive? Would it be reasonable to hire a "not ugly" woman and then fire her because she was "not ugly" at a later date? This is just wrong all the way around in my opinion. Perhaps if she'd quit wearing make-up and frumped herself up a bit she might have kept her job? Geesh.
Tammy Osier December 29, 2012 at 11:41 PM
Gail, did you read the transcript? She engaged in flirting in the text messages (even told him she wasn't getting any sex at home), and when told that her clothes were too tight and request was made to don a smock, she wouldn't (later changed it, so who knows what really happened). So, she was just as guilty in my mind. Had she done nothing, then, yes, I'd agree with you 100% and be mad as hades. But, I don't think that was the case at all. I think it was mutual. The text messages told a bigger story. However, firing? I'm with you on that. I think there whould have been some counsel with sife, pastor long before this. Maybe make arrangements to get another job, mutually agreed. He probably has his just desserts anyway. He's got to live the wife, and her always wondering if he's thinking of somebody else, and that might be punishment enough. lol
Amy December 29, 2012 at 11:51 PM
Mr. B., I say married men because they, especially, have no business trying to romance anybody else other than their wives. And I make myself unattractive by wearing my wedding band, not making eye contact with them when it's clear they want to incite conversations with me, I wear elastic waist pants and skirts sometimes (that turns men off), and when I really hate the men I work with, I'll wear a short hairstyles. Those work pretty good. If a man doesn't get the hint when you follow those steps, they you have a stalker, and that's a different situation.
Gail Lane December 30, 2012 at 12:00 AM
I did read the transcript. When I first heard about this, I felt it was grossly unfair. But the "out of office" flirtation was certainly there and was certainly mutual. I still think that if Mrs. Nelson had initiated an affair or was coercing the good doc into one, I'd feel a bit more empathy for him and his wife - sort of a "fatal attraction" thing. But I still see this as an instance where a precedent has been set that will NOT benefit women who are victims of true harassment in the future. A woman says "no" and the boss says "I fear I can't control myself in the future ... and my wife doesn't like her so she's fired." There's just a boat-load of wrong in this whole scenario. Handled poorly by the doctor - sometimes, legally, words just SHOULDN'T be said. Reading between the lines? I'm guessing there was tension at the office between the wife and the technician and maybe SHE should have the authority to hire and fire if that's the way their household is going to work. And I'm o.k. with that, too!
Tammy Osier December 30, 2012 at 12:22 AM
Gail, agreed. And for the record, I don't think she should have to look frumpy either. I guess I just keep having visions of this woman I used to work with who looked like a barbie, wore (obvious) thongs and had her 38c boobs hanging out about a foot. Some things are obviously meant to be seen by the wearer (the girl I knew, KNEW what she was doing). I prejudiced myself a little with this one. :) And like I said, I think it's ridiculous that the Iowa Supreme Court even had to hear this. I guess there just isn't that much excitement going on in small town Iowa - lol.
John B December 30, 2012 at 12:38 AM
oh boy..........lol
John B December 30, 2012 at 12:49 AM
Tammy: They are both idiots and equally culpable. The excuse being hidden behind the veil of "too attractive" is where the train derails. Call it what it is....boss and subordinate engaged in flirtatious activity and sunsequently jealous wife finds out. That said, no way should she have been fired because her boss who should be held at a higher ethical standard can't control himself. At a minimum, I hope she at least received a fair severance package. I personally think the war on women is a bunch of "malarkey" but it's nonsense like this that gives it some credence.
Tim December 30, 2012 at 12:56 AM
Lord have mercy.....Scandalous going's on.......making me blush...!
DeeBee December 30, 2012 at 09:38 PM
Short hairstyles? Really? So, every woman with a short hairstyle is unattractive? Obnoxious!!
r patton December 30, 2012 at 10:15 PM
How do you know what she did or did not do? Were you there? And, I am willing to bet not ALL married men are attracted to you.

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