Melissa Nelson, The ‘Irresistible’ Dental Assistant, Loses Again In Court

Melissa Nelson, the dental assistant who was fired for being “irresistible,” has lost her sex discrimination case for a second time in the Iowa Supreme Court.

Back in December, Iowa’s highest court ruled unanimously that James Knight, D.D.S. did not engaged in illegal gender discrimination under Iowa law when he fired Nelson because he perceived her attractiveness to be a hazard to his marriage. There was no allegations of sexual harassment or any issues with her job performance.

The state Supreme Court subsequently agreed to reconsider its decision, which was released today, but with the same outcome. As AP summarizes, “the all-male court found that bosses can fire employees they see as threats to their marriages, even if the subordinates have not engaged in flirtatious or other inappropriate behavior. The court said such firings do not count as illegal sex discrimination because they are motivated by feelings, not gender.”

Under the traditional employment at will doctrine, employees can in general be fired for any reason or no reason as long as it doesn’t violate civil rights or fair employment laws, a personal services or union contract, or an employee handbook provision. Courts can sometimes find a so-called public policy exception to rule in favor of a terminated employee in the absence of a controlling statute, but none was found in the Melissa Nelson case. Those are instances where a court finds that it would be in the best interests of society to give an employee relief.

In a 32-page opinion, the unanimous court noted that it did not endorse the action taken by the dentist but that its job was to determine whether any law was broken: “… the issue before us is not whether a jury could find that Dr. Knight treated Nelson badly. We are asked to decide only if a genuine fact issue exists as to whether Dr. Knight engaged in unlawful gender discrimination when he fired Nelson at the request of his wife. For the reasons previously discussed, we believe this conduct did not amount to unlawful discrimination, and therefore we affirm the judgment of the district court.”

Do you agree with the court decision in the Melissa Nelson case?