area dental assistant fired for being 'irresistible'
Amid an international public backlash over an Iowa Supreme Court decision that said a male Fort Dodge dentist broke no sex discrimination law in firing his female assistant for being "irresistible," a local legal leader suggests that the decision was appropriate under Iowa law.
"I thought the court came out with a realistic outcome for once," said Buena Vista County Attorney Dave Patton, when asked to reflect on the decision.
Melissa Nelson was hired in 1999 by James Knight, and worked for him for over 10 years. Knight reportedly found her attractive to the point of distraction, and eventually his wife, who also worked in the office, objected to Nelson's employment as a threat to their marriage. Knight fired Nelson shortly after that, in early 2010.
Nelson said she had done nothing to deserve losing her career, and claimed gender discrimination. A district court shot down her case before it could reach trial; she appealed, and the high court has now unanimously affirmed the decision.
Patton noted that Iowa is an "employment at will" state, which means you can be fired from a job for any reason that does not in itself break a law, he said - and the law does not protect a person for being too pretty.
"I'm guessing that the poor guy was stuck between probably what a (human resources) person was telling him and what his wife was telling him," Patton said.
"You read studies about how people who are physically attractive are perceived to be smarter and more productive than others; perhaps this shows there can be a disadvantage to attractiveness as well."
When asked if he thought the case was a frivolous one and whether the Supreme Court should have other issues to address with a large backlog of cases in Iowa courts, Patton said that he would not second-guess the system.
"You never know which case is the frivolous case," he said. "In every case with people going against each other, one side is going to say that the other side has a frivolous case."
He noted that a sex discrimination case filed against Sears Roebuck and Co. for allegedly channeling female workers into lower-paid and less prestigious jobs turned into an important decision for equal rights.
Some legal experts are suggesting that Nelson chose the wrong vehicle for her case. The Fort Dodge dentist, sole proprietor of his business, apparently employs all women, and replaced Nelson with another female employee, making it difficult to make a case that his employee was fired because of her gender.
In its decision, Supreme Court Justice Edward Mansfield wrote, "The issue before us is not whether a jury could find that Dr. Knight treated Nelson badly," but whether there are facts to prove Knight fired her illegally due to discrimination.
Nelson's attorney disagrees. "We are appalled by the court's ruling.... For the seven men on the Iowa Supreme Court not to 'get it' is shocking and disheartening." She told the Associated Press, "These judges sent a message to Iowa women that they don't think men can be held responsible for their sexual desires. If (the bosses) get out of hand, then the women can be legally fired for it."
The former dental assistant told CNN that the court experience has been "an emotional roller coaster." After being terminated, she had to go to work as a waitress six nights a week.
Asked if the woman chose the wrong tack in charging gender discrimination as opposed to another claim like wrongful termination or sexual harassment, local county attorney Patton said it is impossible to say.
"People who feel they have been wronged always grab whatever handle is out there," he said. "You sue with what you have."
According to court documents, Nelson had commented to his female assistant toward the end of her employment that her clothing was too tight and "distracting," but she denied wearing anything inappropriate to work. According to Nelson, she wore standard medical "scrubs" on the job.
Nelson reportedly told her that "if she sees his pants bulging, she would know her clothing was too revealing."
The court decision concluded that the female employee had not engaged in "flirtatious conduct" and was terminated simply because her boss viewed her as an "irresistible attraction."
During the last six months of Nelson's employment, she and her boss had been exchanging personal text messages outside of work, not of a sexual nature. When Knight's wife found out about the messages late in 2009, she demanded that he fire Nelson.
The formal dental assistant was stunned, and said she had viewed her boss, nearly 20 years her senior, as a "father figure." Happily married with children, she said she "absolutely" never had any interest in him romantically.
She reportedly laughed at any suggestion that she was irresistible to a co-worker. "I'm just an ordinary girl, just an ordinary mom."
Dr. Knight reportedly admitted to Nelson's husband that she had done nothing wrong, and called her the best dental assistant he had ever had. According to Knight, she was fired because she had become a detriment to his family and a "perceived threat" to his marriage. He paid her one month's severance.
Nelson's attorney suggests that the court decision is a blow to women who routinely face discrimination in the workplace.
The dentist's attorney said the issue was neither for or against women's civil rights, but simply a matter of the court following existing case law, and suggested the outcome is a victory for family values.
Reflecting on the gender discrimination allegation, "It may have been all she had," BV County Attorney Patton said.
"I suppose if something like this happened to your daughter, it would be easy to side with the employee," he said. "Nobody likes to see anyone lose their job when they haven't done anything particularly wrong."
We asked for opinions on the ruling from readers of the Pilot-Tribune's online sites. Their reactions were decidedly mixed. Many expressed anger over the decision and some suggested that Nelson should sue for sexual harassment.
"I feel that she was unfairly released from her job. If her boss had trouble with the fact that she is "irresistibly attractive" and that causes a distraction from his work, maybe he needs to re-evaluate his priorities. Just because he's easily distracted by an attractive woman is no reason for her to lose her job," says Kelsey Struck.
"I'm sorry but I don't think you should be able to fire someone just because you can't control your own hormones as an adult in a professional environment," adds Betty Nordstrom-Hinde.
"What happened to keeping or losing your job based on how you do your job?... What happens if a patient comes in that he finds too attractive? Is he not going to be her dentist?" asks Jolene Otto.
"If it's not discrimination, what is?" adds Denny Danks.
"I say no one use the dentist -- boycott him," says Gary Emery.
Others support the decision as legally correct.
"As unfair as it is... her employer technically didn't do anything wrong," said Calli Johannsen.
"I feel an employer has every right to fire any employee for any reason. It is their business, and they should be allowed to want the best for themselves," says Rusty Shackleford. "That isn't always politically correct... Even if an 'attractive' person is the 'best' qualified for the position, should an employer be forced into employing that person?"
"If it is OK to hire someone because of their good looks, it probably makes sense they could be terminated for the same," Mark Freeman says.
"I've always said any employer should be free to hire and fire at their whim. Word gets around. Don't like how someone runs their business? Take your business elsewhere. Reward the businesses whose practices you like. That's capitalism," says Rick Rauch. "Of course, keeping track of such things is a lot of work; it's much easier to demand that politicians legislate all that responsibility instead."