The court ruled 7-0
that a Ft. Dodge dentist acted legally when he terminated the employment of a female assistant just because he thought she was too attractive and his wife felt threatened by her.
According to the all-male court
, bosses can fire employees deemed "irresistibly attractive" even if they have not engaged in flirtatious behavior or done anything wrong. Justice Edward Mansfield admitted that such firings may be unfair, but they do not constitute unlawful discrimination under the state's Civil Rights Act
because the terminations are not motivated by gender but rather by emotions. A female boss who terminated an "irresistibly attractive" male worker would also be well within her rights as determined by the court.
The case at hand involved dentist James Knight, 53, who employed 32-year-old assistant Melissa Nelson, who he considered an excellent worker, for more than 10 years. In the final months of her employment, Knight complained that Nelson's clothes were too sexy and quipped that if she noticed a bulge in his pants, that meant her attire was too revealing.
Knight also once responded to a comment about Nelson's lackluster sex life by saying, "that's like having a Lamborghini in the garage and never driving it."
Both Knight and Nelson are married with children. Knight's wife also works in his dental office. After she discovered a series of text messages between her husband and Nelson, mostly about personal, but non-sexual, matters, she demanded Nelson's firing. The couple consulted their pastor, who also agreed that Nelson should be terminated.
Knight then fired Nelson, giving her a month's severance pay. He also told Nelson's husband that he fired her because he feared he was growing too attached to her and was worried he would try to initiate an extramarital affair.
A shocked Nelson then sued Knight for gender discrimination. The dentist countered that he did not fire Nelson because she was a woman, but because his attraction to her threatened his marriage. A district judge concurred and dismissed the case before it went to trial. The Supreme Court ruling upholds that decision.
In affirming the lower court's ruling, Justice Mansfield noted that Knight's employees are all female and that Nelson's replacement was also a woman.
Knight called the court's ruling a victory for family values.
Stuart Cochrane, Knight's attorney, hailed the decision.
"While there really was no fault on the part of Mrs. Nelson, it was just as clear the decision to terminate her was not related to the fact that she was a woman," Cochrane told reporters. "The motives behind Dr. Knight terminating Mrs. Nelson were quite clear: He did so to preserve his marriage."