After working as a dental assistant for ten years, Melissa Nelson was fired for being too “irresistible” and a “threat” to her employer’s marriage.
“I think it is completely wrong,” Nelson said. ”I think it is
sending a message that men can do whatever they want in the work force.”
On Friday, the all-male Iowa State Supreme Court ruled that James
Knight, Nelson’s boss, was within his legal rights when he fired her,
affirming the decision of a lower court.
“We do think the Iowa Supreme Court got it completely right,” said
Stuart Cochrane, an attorney for James Knight. “Our position has always
been Mrs. Nelson was never terminated because of her gender, she was
terminated because of concerns her behavior was not appropriate in the
workplace. She’s an attractive lady. Dr. Knight found her behavior and
dress to be inappropriate.”
For Nelson, a 32-year-old married mother of two, the news of her firing and the rationale behind it came as a shock.
“I was very surprised after working so many years side by side I
didn’t have any idea that that would have crossed his mind,” she said.
The two never had a sexual relationship or sought one, according to
court documents, however in the final year and a half of Nelson’s
employment, Knight began to make comments about her clothing being too
tight or distracting.
“Dr. Knight acknowledges he once told Nelson that if she saw his
pants bulging, she would know her clothing was too revealing,” the
Six months before Nelson was fired, she and her boss began exchanging
text messages about work and personal matters, such as updates about
each of their children’s activities, the justices wrote.
The messages were mostly mundane, but Nelson recalled one text she
received from her boss asking “how often she experienced an orgasm.”
Nelson did not respond to the text and never indicated that she was
uncomfortable with Knight’s question, according to court documents.
Soon after, Knight’s wife, Jeanne, who also works at the practice,
found out about the text messaging and ordered her husband to fire
The couple consulted with a senior pastor at their church and he
agreed that Nelson should be terminated in order to protect their
marriage, Cochrane said.
On Jan. 4, 2010, Nelson was summoned to a meeting with Knight while a
pastor was present. Knight then read from a prepared statement telling
Nelson she was fired.
“Dr. Knight felt like for the best interest of his marriage and the
best interest of hers to end their employment relationship,” Cochrane
Knight acknowledged in court documents that Nelson was good at her
job and she, in turn, said she was generally treated with respect.
“I’m devastated. I really am,” Nelson said.
When Nelson’s husband tried to reason with Knight, the dentist told
him he “feared he would have an affair with her down the road if he did
not fire her.”
Paige Fiedler, Nelson’s attorney, said in a statement to ABC News affiliate KCRG that she was “appalled” by the ruling.
“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,” Fiedler wrote. “Nearly every woman in Iowa
understands this because we have experienced it for ourselves.”