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Iowa Supreme Court Holds Employee May be Terminated Because Her Boss Views Her as 'Irresistible'

  • January 11, 2013

The Iowa Supreme Court has ruled that the Iowa Civil Rights Act does not protect a dental assistant who was terminated by the owner of a dental practice for being an “irresistible attraction.” The decision in Nelson v. James H. Knight, DDS, P.C., No. 11-857 (Dec. 21, 2012), has attracted a lot of media attention, and some criticism. 

The Iowa Civil Rights Act prohibits unfair or discriminatory employment practices because of the age, race, creed, color, sex, sexual orientation, gender identity, national origin, religion or disability of an applicant or employee, unless based upon the nature of the occupation.

The dental assistant, Melissa Nelson, had worked for the practice for more than 10 years. The dentist, Dr. James H. Knight, admitted to telling Nelson that if she “saw his pants bulging” she would know her clothing was too revealing. According to the allegations in Nelson’s unfair termination claim, after Nelson allegedly made a statement regarding her sex life, Dr. Knight commented, “That’s like having a Lamborghini in the garage and never driving it.” He also allegedly texted her to ask how often she experienced an orgasm. When Dr. Knight’s wife, who also worked at the dental practice, learned that her husband and Nelson had started texting (they both denied any affair), she insisted he terminate Nelson’s employment. Dr. Knight fired Nelson, with his pastor present, telling her it was in the best interests of his family and hers. 

Nelson did not allege sexual harassment in her lawsuit. She asserted that she was unlawfully terminated under Iowa law because of her gender. Dr. Knight pointed out that all of his other employees are female and Nelson was replaced by another female employee. Nelson argued that she would not have been fired if she had not been a woman. 

The trial court dismissed the lawsuit on summary judgment, reasoning, “Nelson was not fired because of her gender, but because she was a threat to the marriage of Dr. Knight.” Nelson appealed the decision and the Iowa Supreme Court framed the question as “whether an employee who has not engaged in flirtatious conduct may be lawfully terminated simply because her boss views the employee as an irresistible attraction.” The Court ultimately answered, “Yes.” 

This result follows that of federal court decisions considered under Title VII of the Civil Right Act that have looked at similar situations. The case is an interesting example of the limitations on the reach of employment discrimination laws, at least in certain circumstances. On January 6, 2013, Nelson filed a petition for reconsideration. 


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