Melissa Nelson, the Iowa dental assistant who was fired from her job because her boss found her too “irresistible,” lost a second hearing in front of the Iowa Supreme Court on Friday. In a rare move, the court withdrew its previous ruling that Nelson’s boss had not broken the law when he fired her, only to stand by its decision on Friday.
According to the Associated Press, the all-male court found that Nelson’s former employer James Knight acted unfairly but was within his legal rights to let her go because he viewed her as a threat to his marriage, even though Knight admitted that Nelson never engaged in flirtatious or inappropriate behavior during her more than 10 years working for him. The court concluded that firings like Nelson's were motivated by feelings, not gender, and therefore did not constitute gender discrimination under the Iowa Civil Rights Act.
Nelson, 33, was fired from Knight’s Fort Dodge business in 2012 and given one month’s severance pay. Despite calling Nelson one of the best dental assistants he’d ever had, Knight said that the decision to fire her, which his lawyer said he “agonized” over, was ultimately an order from his wife. In court records, Knight said that he found Nelson to be an “irresistible attraction,” and frequently made remarks about how attractive he found her.
Toward the end of Nelson’s employment, Knight asked the former dental assistant to dress more conservatively, explaining to her that her clothes were “distracting” for him. He reportedly told her on one occasion that, “If she saw his pants bulging, she would know her clothing was too revealing.”
When the Supreme Court initially made its decision, Nelson pledged to keep fighting. “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.”
After Nelson’s case was highlighted on the Comedy Central show Tosh.0 in April, it received widespread publicity. Iowa attorney and “On Brief” blogger Ryan Koopmans said he believes the attention the show sparked likely contributed to the court’s surprising choice in June to withdraw their 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.”
In the past decade, the Iowa Supreme Court has reconsidered only five of its decisions.