Standing by a December decision, the Iowa Supreme Court ruled Friday that a male dentist who fired a female assistant because she was too attractive and threatened his marriage did not commit sex discrimination.
The all-male court ruled against Melissa Nelson, who sued her former employer James Knight, alleging Knight’s wife told Knight to fire Nelson because “she was a big threat to our marriage.” Knight fired Nelson in January 2010 after more than 10 years working for him, later testifying that she was not fired for performance reasons.
The Court wrote:
“It is abundantly clear that a woman does not lose the protection of our laws prohibiting sex discrimination just because her employer becomes sexually attracted to her, and the employer’s attraction then becomes the reason for terminating the woman once it, in some way, becomes a problem for the employer. If a woman is terminated based on stereotypes related to the characteristics of her gender, including attributes of attractiveness, the termination would amount to sex discrimination because the reason for termination would be motivated by the particular gender attribute at issue.”
Despite this admission, the justices claimed Nelson was fired not because of gender attributes but because of facts surrounding her relationship with Knight, including several comments he made about her clothing and the fact that the two would text each other outside of work hours.
After the initial ruling in December, Nelson asked the justices to reconsider, suggesting the ruling would open the door to darker-skinned employees being replaced with lighter-skinned ones or less attractive employees being replaced with more attractive ones.
When the Court issued its December ruling, Nelson’s attorney issued a statement to ABC News: “We are appalled by the Court’s ruling and its failure to understand the nature of gender bias,” she wrote. “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.”