An Iowa dental assistant who was fired from her job because her boss allegedly found her “irresistible,” lost a lawsuit she filed in December, but is getting a second chance at pursuing legal recourse. Melissa Nelson’s former employer, James Knight, reportedly let her go because he was worried that if she remained his employee, he would be tempted to cheat on his wife.
Iowa’s Supreme Court made an extremely rare move this week by withdrawing its unanimous decision that Knight had not violated the law, according to KCCI in Des Moines. The all-male court had previously ruled that it was unfair of Knight, but not illegal under the Iowa Civil Rights Act, to terminate Nelson on the basis that he was attracted to her. Nelson was given one month’s severance pay after working at the Fort Dodge business for more than a decade.
Although Knight had called Nelson one of the best dental assistants he’d ever had, he reportedly fired the 33-year-old on his wife’s orders. In a conversation with Nelson’s husband after her termination, Knight denied that Nelson had done anything wrong. Court records say that Knight found her to be an “irresistible attraction,” and thought she posed a danger to his marriage. He also reportedly made remarks on her infrequent sex life, saying, “[T]hat’s like having a Lamborghini in the garage and never driving it.”
“I think it is completely wrong,” Nelson said of the court’s initial ruling, according to ABC News. “I think it is sending a message that men can do whatever they want in the workforce.”
Nelson’s attorney, Paige Fielder, petitioned for a rehearing of the ruling on the grounds that her firing was motivated by gender. “The only reason he was attracted to her at all was because she was a woman,” Fielder told HuffPost Live in January. “The fact that it came from his feelings is not inconsistent with the fact that she’s a woman. Since they admitted it, it’s perplexing to me why it was dismissed.”
Despite the ruling, Nelson continued to push forward with her case. She finally made headway in April, when her case was featured on the Comedy Central show “Tosh.O.”
Iowa attorney and “On Brief” blogger Ryan Koopmans said he believes it’s likely that the national backlash to the case influenced the court’s choice to withdraw the decision. “People think this decision is just unfair,” Koopmans said, according to KCCI via CNN.
“It’s really unprecedented. In this case there is no new evidence there is no fact that the Supreme Court missed,” he added. “The only thing that’s new here is the public reaction to the opinion. Which is mostly negative, actually overwhelmingly negative.”
However, Knight disagrees. “We do think the Iowa Supreme Court got it completely right,” said Knight’s lawyer, Stuart Cochrane. “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.”
Cochrane added that Knight had “agonized” over his decision to fire Nelson. He said that toward the end of her employment, Knight had asked her to dress more conservatively and explained that her clothes were “distracting.” According to a court decision, Knight commented on one occasion, “[I]f she saw his pants bulging, she would know her clothing was too revealing.”