Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor
Woman Fired for Sex Appeal: Unfair, but Not Gender Bias, Iowa Court Rules
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. …