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State Supreme Court Upholds Ruling Employers Can Fire 'Irresistible' Workers

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CEDAR RAPIDS, Iowa - The Iowa Supreme Court ruled on Friday that a Fort Dodge dentist acted within his legal rights to fire an employee that he and his wife perceived as a threat to their marriage.

In a 7-0 ruling, the court upheld a previous Webster County judge's decision that Dr. James Knight fired Melissa Nelson not because of her gender but because of the relationship between Knight and Nelson.

Court records show that, in 1999, Knight hired Nelson to work as a dental assistant. Yet, by 2009, Knight started to verbalize concerns about Nelson's attire, calling it "too tight and revealing and distracting." Around the same time, the employer and the hygenist started texting each other regarding family and work subjects.

Documents show Dr. Knight and Nelson did engage in at least two occasions of exchanging text messages regarding her clothing as well as her sex life. The report shows Dr. Knight did "acknowledge he once told Nelson that if she saw his pants bulging, she would know her clothing was too revealing."

Soon after, Dr. Knight's wife discovered the two had been texting and had then demanded her husband fire Nelson. He terminated her on January 4, 2010, replacing her with another female employee.

Throughout her tenure, Nelson "denies that she ever flirted with him or sought an intimate or sexual relationship with him," according to the court document.

In August 2010, Nelson brought a one-count petition against her former boss, alleging that he discriminated against her on the basis of gender. The District Court judge found that "Ms. Nelson was fired not because of her gender but because she was threat to the marriage of Dr. Knight."

After the Supreme Court's ruling on Friday, Nelson's attorney, Paige Fiedler of Urbandale, said she was "appalled" by the decision.

Fiedler's full statement to KCRG-TV 9 and

"We are appalled by the Court's ruling and its failure to understand the nature of gender bias. Although people act for a variety of reasons, it is very common for women to be targeted for discrimination because of their sexual attractiveness or supposed lack of sexual attractiveness. That is discrimination based on sex. Nearly every woman in Iowa understands this because we have experienced it for ourselves. For the seven men on the Iowa Supreme Court not to "get it" is shocking and disheartening. It underscores the need for judges on the bench to be diverse in terms of their gender, race, and life experiences."

Matt Reilly, of Eells & Tronvold Law Offices PLC in Cedar Rapids specializes in employment law.

"What the justices basically said was that they did not fire her because she is a woman," said Reilly. "They replaced her with a woman and they, generally, only hired women."

Yet Reilly also spoke of a "slippery slope" this ruling could bring in the future. Can an Iowa employer or business owner fire an employee because of an "irresistible" attraction, as the Court phrased it? Especially if the firing comes to an employee who is described as a "good" worker, as Nelson was in this case?

"It isn't really fair to the employee but that isn't the standard (of the law)," said Reilly. "It isn't the question of whether the employee deserved it, it was if the employer's motivation is wrong and in this case, potentially it could open up some problems."

Fielder said her client does not have a next step, legally, at this point.

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