DES MOINES (Reuters) - An Iowa dentist did not discriminate against a female assistant he fired for being “too attractive,” the Iowa Supreme Court ruled unanimously on Friday in its second decision in the case.
In December, the all-male court ruled that Dr. James Knight did not discriminate in firing dental hygienist Melissa Nelson after more than 10 years’ service because he found her too attractive and his wife saw her as a threat.
Nelson had argued she would not have been fired if she were a man, and her attorney, Paige Fiedler, argued in seeking a second hearing that their decision was a setback for gender equality in the workplace.
In late June, the justices decided to reconsider the case.
“We ultimately conclude the conduct does not amount to unlawful sex discrimination in violation of the Iowa Civil Rights Act,” Justice Edward Mansfield wrote.
Knight had hired Nelson in 1999 and on several occasions in the 18 months before he fired her in early 2010, he complained that her clothing was too tight, revealing and distracting, the decision said. She denied wearing anything inappropriate.
Nelson and Knight began texting each other in 2009, the opinion said. Most messages were work-related or otherwise innocuous, but some were more suggestive, including one in which Knight asked Nelson how often she had an orgasm, the opinion said. Nelson did not answer that text.
“The fact of the matter is Nelson was terminated because of the activities of her consensual personal relationship with her employer, not because of her gender,” Chief Justice Mark Cady wrote in a separate special concurrence.
In late 2009, Knight’s wife, Jeanne Knight, learned that her husband had been texting with Nelson while he was on an out-of-state vacation with their children and she insisted he fire her, saying “she was a big threat to our marriage,” the opinion said.
Knight read Nelson a statement when he fired her that said in part that their relationship had become a detriment to both of their families.
Nelson’s attorney, Fiedler, said Friday she was “beyond distressed at the lack of awareness and understanding this decision demonstrates.
“Women already have to balance on the very fine line of being respected, professional and well-liked in the workplace without having their perceived charm or attractiveness garner unwanted sexual advances, harassment and discrimination,” Fiedler said in a statement.
Todd Pettys, associate dean for faculty in the University of Iowa College of Law, said it was unclear why the court decided to rehear the case, given that the justices did not change their positions from December to July.
“It appears to me what they really wanted to do was take another shot at explaining why they were reaching the conclusion that they did, understanding that they had come under some criticism for that conclusion.”
Reporting by Kay Henderson in Des Moines; Editing by David Bailey, Leslie Gevirtz and Kenneth Barry