By Charisma L. Miller, Esq.
Brooklyn Daily Eagle
The facts read like a titillating Harlequin novel. A middle-age dentist hires a young attractive dental assistant. The dentist finds himself attracted to his beautiful new employee and then, unexpectedly the assistant finds herself without a job. The reason for her sudden unemployment: she’s just too irresistible.
The Iowa Supreme Court ruled that this firing does not constitute sexual discrimination. Finding that sexual discrimination laws do not “authorize courts to declare unlawful every arbitrary and unfair employment decision,” the Iowa judges unanimously held that releasing an employee solely out of worry that the employer is getting too attracted, was wholly legitimate and legal.
As Hofstra Law School Professor Joanna L Grossman, noted in her column for Justia, the Iowa court produced an “illogical decision that misinterprets governing civil rights law.” The ruling “hearkens back to mistakes of the 1970s, when courts, including the U.S. Supreme Court, struggled to figure out just exactly what “sex discrimination,” said Professor Grossman.
The saga at the Iowa dentist office began about a year and a half ago when Melissa Nelson, then a 10-year employee at Dr. James Knight’s dental practice, began receiving comments from Dr. Knight of an inappropriate nature. According to court documents, “Dr. Knight acknowledges he once told Nelson that if she saw his pants bulging, she would know her clothing was too revealing.”
Dr. Knight also began commenting on Nelson’s sex life, stating that the infrequency in Nelson’s sex life is “like having a Lamborghini in the garage and never driving it.” How Dr. Knight became aware of Nelson’s sex life is unclear.
After receiving threats of divorce from his wife, Dr. Knight fired Nelson because “he was worried he was getting too personally attached to her,” and “that he feared he would try to have an affair with her down the road if he did not fire her,” despite the fact that Nelson was the “best dental assistant he ever had.”
Nelson viewed her firing as sexual discrimination and a violation of Title VII sexual harassment. The all-male Iowa Supreme Court disagreed. The court framed the issue as “whether an employee who has not engaged in flirtatious conduct may be lawfully terminated simply because the boss views the employee as an irresistible attraction."
“I'm trying to stay strong. It's tough,” Nelson told CNN. "I don't think it's fair. I don't think it's right."
Longtime New York attorney Murray Schwartz was shocked by the ruling. “How can you punish a woman because she is attractive,” he asked in an exclusive interview with the Brooklyn Daily Eagle. “It is almost not a legal question. It is almost a common sense kind of question. Of course a woman who is attractive should not be discriminated against because of her good looks,” Schwartz continued. “On the other hand, you have an employer who does not want to have a problem.”
Professor Grossman is perplexed by the ruling as well. “If a supervisor’s sexually harassing an employee constitutes sex discrimination, why doesn’t his firing her to stop himself from sexually harassing her constitute discrimination as well?” he asked.
No word yet from Nelson’s attorneys at Fiedler & Timmer, PLLC, as to whether or not Nelson will appeal the courts ruling.