According to the Iowa Supreme Court, firing an employee because they are too attractive might be unfair, but it’s also completely legal.
Friday’s ruling by the all-male Iowa Supreme Court came after Melissa Nelson, a dental assistant in Iowa who was fired from her job because her boss found her to be an “irresistible attraction,” asked the court to reconsider its initial ruling last December that Nelson was not a victim of discrimination by her male boss, Dr. James Knight.
The court said that although Knight’s decision to fire Nelson was “bad treatment” and his decision to pay her just one month’s severance was “ungenerous,” it was completely legal because firings motivated by feelings do not count as gender discrimination under the Iowa Civil Rights Act.
Paige Fiedler, Nelson’s attorney, called the court’s decision a blow to gender equity in the workplace when the court initially ruled against Nelson in December 2012. Nelson said she thought the court’s ruling “is sending a message that men can do whatever they want in the workforce.”
But Knight’s attorney, Stuart Cochrane, told the Associated Press he was impressed by the ruling.
“This is a case where the court is recognizing that every single case it can find, even remotely on point, has reached the same conclusion that this is not discrimination based on gender,” he said. “In this decision as opposed to the earlier decision, the court really spent a tremendous amount of time and energy making sure they clearly communicated that fact.”
Though the public has expressed outrage at the decision, Justice Edward Mansfield noted that Nelson had filed only a gender discrimination lawsuit against Knight, not a sexual harassment or hostile work environment claim. If she had, the justices’ decision may have been different.
Mansfield said that “firing workers because of gender-specific characteristics such as their looks can violate their civil rights,” but said Nelson’s case lacked the evidence for such a claim.
Lawsuit 10 years in the making
Nelson, 33, a married mother of two children, had worked for Knight, 53, for 10 years before she was fired in 2010. She said Knight had considered her to be his best assistant.
Nelson says Knight told her the decision to terminate her employment was ultimately an order from his wife, who was concerned that if Nelson was kept on staff, she and Knight would have an affair. However, Knight admitted that Nelson had never engaged in flirtatious or inappropriate behavior in the more than 10 years they worked together.
“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,” Nelson told ABC News in 2012 about Knight’s concerns the two would end up having an affair.
Though the two never engaged in a sexual relationship or reportedly sought one, the Associated Press reported that court documents showed that in the last year-and-a-half of Nelson’s employment, Knight made some sexual comments about Nelson’s clothing.
In one particular comment that has attracted a lot of attention, Knight asked Nelson to dress more conservatively. Knight said that he found Nelson’s clothes to be “distracting” and told her on one occasion that, “If she saw his pants bulging, she would know her clothing was too revealing,” according to ABC News.
About six months before Nelson was fired, she and Knight began to text one another. While the text messages were largely about work and personal matters, such as updates to what their kids were doing, Knight also sent Nelson some racy messages. One message asked Nelson “how often she experienced an orgasm,” according to ABC.
Nelson did not respond to that message, and there isn’t any evidence Nelson had reported she was uncomfortable with the question. However, Knight’s wife, Jeanne, who also works at the dental practice, found the message and demanded Nelson be fired.
ABC reported that the Knights discussed the incident with a pastor, who agreed Nelson should be fired to ensure James Knight did not have an affair. On Jan. 4, 2010, Nelson was called into a meeting with James Knight and the pastor, and that’s when 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 said.
More than just co-workers
When the court first announced its ruling in favor of James Knight in 2012, Fiedler said she was appalled that court failed to understand the nature of gender bias.
In a written statement, she said, “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.”
“Nearly every woman in Iowa understands this because we have experienced it for ourselves,” she added. “For the seven men on the Iowa Supreme Court not to ‘get it’ is shocking and disheartening. It underscores the need for judges on the bench to be diverse in terms of their gender, race and life experiences.”
But in the court’s 2013 decision, Chief Justice Mark Caddy wrote, “Nelson was terminated because of the activities of her consensual personal relationship with her employer, not because of her gender.”
Caddy went on to explain that while Nelson may have viewed Knight as a father figure and not a sexual partner, her relationship with Knight went beyond the “reasonable parameters of workplace interaction.”
According to the AP, Caddy mentioned an instance in which Nelson told Knight that she wasn’t having much sex. Knight reportedly responded, “That’s like having a Lamborghini in the garage and not ever driving it.”
When the court first ruled in 2012 that Nelson had not been fired because of her gender, their finding was largely supported by the fact that Knight had an all-female staff, and that he had replaced Nelson with another female employee.
Matt Reilly, a lawyer in Iowa specializing in employment law, said that while the ruling isn’t fair to Nelson or other employees who have been fired for being too attractive, it’s legal. Reilly said that “it isn’t the question of whether the employee deserved it,” but says the law only examines “if the employer’s motivation is wrong.”
While Nelson’s case has garnered a lot of media attention due to the case’s unique nature, she is not the only woman who has been fired for her appearance.
Last year, 29-year-old Lauren Odes, a data entry professional, says she was fired from her job at a wholesale lingerie company, Native Intimates, because her Orthodox Jewish employers thought she was too busty and dressed too provocatively.
At a press conference last year, Odes said her employers suggested she tape her breasts to make them look smaller and asked her to wear a “humiliating” red bathrobe over her clothing, since her figure was “distracting.”
Odes says she bought long sweaters to try and cover her figure, but was fired anyway. Her employer’s reason: “You are just too hot for this office.”
Represented by Gloria Allred, Odes filed a gender and religious discrimination complaint with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission in New York.
Another woman who filed a lawsuit against her employer after being fired for her good looks was Debrahlee Lorenzana. The Citibank banker says her bosses told her they couldn’t concentrate on their work because her appearance was too distracting. Her boss forbade Lorenzana from wearing turtlenecks, pencil skirts, three-inch heels or fitted business suits. She was also told that she looked “sickly” without makeup and that she should straighten her hair every day.
Lorenzana’s female colleagues were allowed to wear the banned clothing items, however, since Lorenzana’s managers said they were “short, overweight, and they didn’t draw much attention.”
“If it wasn’t my shirt, it was my pants,” she said. “If it wasn’t my pants, it was my shoes. They picked on me every single day.”
Lorenzana’s attorney, Jack Tuckner, said he agreed his client was attractive but said that male employers need to practice self-control.
“It’s like saying that we can’t think anymore ’cause our penises are standing up — and we cannot think about you except in a sexual manner — and we can’t look at you without wanting to have sexual intercourse with you. And it’s up to you, gorgeous woman, to lessen your appeal so that we can focus!” Tuckner said.
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