Labor & Employment

Columnists Decry Iowa Ruling Finding No Sex Bias in Woman Fired for Being Too Irresistible

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Outraged columnists are still talking about an Iowa Supreme Court ruling issued before Christmas that tossed a lawsuit by a woman who says her boss fired her because he considered her an irresistible attraction.

The Iowa Supreme Court ruled on Dec. 21 that the firing of dental assistant Melissa Nelson did not amount to unlawful sex discrimination in violation of the Iowa Civil Rights Act. Columnists for the Kansas City Star, A Better Iowa and Courthouse News Service are criticizing the decision (PDF).

Dentist James Knight had fired Nelson after Knight’s wife learned her husband and Nelson had been trading texts on work and personal matters, some of them involving updates on their kids’ activities and “other innocuous matters,” the court said. One of Knight’s texts, however, was sexual in nature (Nelson says she didn’t reply), and he had complained occasionally in the office that Nelson’s clothing was too tight and “distracting.”

The wife considered Nelson a threat to the marriage and demanded her termination, according to the opinion. Knight fired Nelson, a 10-year employee in his office, after consulting with his pastor. Knight later told Nelson’s husband that Nelson was the best dental assistant he ever had, but he feared he would try to have an affair with her if he did not fire her.

Nelson had contended she was fired based on her gender, but the Iowa Supreme Court disagreed. “The civil rights laws seek to insure that employees are treated the same regardless of their sex or other protected status,” the court said. “Yet even taking Nelson’s view of the facts, Dr. Knight’s unfair decision to terminate Nelson (while paying her a rather ungenerous one month’s severance) does not jeopardize that goal. This is illustrated by the fact that Dr. Knight hired a female replacement for Nelson.”

The Kansas City Star and A Better Iowa say Knight’s justification for the firing has long been used to keep women out of certain jobs. “Law enforcement, the military, firefighting, construction—any number of fields have used this argument to exclude women,” the Kansas City Star says. “Just what were the justices thinking?”

A Better Iowa goes further with its analogy. “To accept that it is impossible for a man to control himself around women is to accept that sexual harassment, and maybe even rape, can result from uncontrollable urges, too,” the columnist says. “It is to accept the Taliban’s justification for keeping females out of schools and work sites: Those temptresses are just too much of a distraction.”

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