Too Sexy For This Job?

According to Dr. James Knight, Melissa Nelson was the best dental assistant he ever had.

Unfortunately for her, she was also physically “irresistible” to Knight, who relieved Nelson of her duties at his Fort Dodge, Iowa-based dental practice in January 2010. Her firing came on the heels of Knight’s complaints that Nelson, an employee of 10-plus years, wore tight-fitting, “distracting” clothes at work, and his growing concerns that she posed a threat to his marriage.

In her subsequent lawsuit, Nelson claimed she was fired for her gender. The all-male Iowa Supreme Court, however, recently affirmed a lower court’s decision that her termination broke no discrimination law.

Nelson, a 32-year-old married mother of two, has denied that she dressed inappropriately at work, telling CNN she wore scrubs while on the job. Whatever she wore, Nelson’s appearance seems to have made an impression on her boss. For example, Knight reportedly once told Nelson that “if she saw his pants bulging, she would know her clothing was too revealing,” according to court documents.

And court records indicate that Knight’s allusions to Nelson’s physical attractiveness didn’t stop there. In another alleged exchange, Knight supposedly responded to a comment she made about her lackluster love life by saying, “[t]hat’s like having a Lamborghini in the garage and never driving it.”

Still, the relationship between the two—which both acknowledge never became sexual—seemed to remain cordial. Knight and Nelson swapped friendly text messages outside of work, and she didn’t allege sexual harassment in her lawsuit.

Nevertheless, she was terminated not long after Knight’s wife, who was employed at the same dental office, found out about the text message exchanges, and reportedly demanded that Knight fire Nelson. Knight did just that, telling Nelson that she had become a “detriment” to his family, and suggesting their professional relationship should end for the sake of both their families.

“The issue before us is not whether a jury could find that Dr. Knight treated Nelson badly,” wrote Justice Edward M. Mansfield. “We are asked to decide only if a genuine fact issue exists as to whether Dr. Knight engaged in unlawful gender discrimination when he fired Nelson at the request of his wife. For the reasons previously discussed, we believe this conduct did not amount to unlawful discrimination, and therefore we affirm the judgment of the district court.”

Yes, the Iowa Supreme Court came down on Knight’s side in this case. But he hasn’t exactly seen a groundswell of support elsewhere. The public backlash is well underway on Twitter, at Knight’s Yelp page and various other online forums, where countless users have disparaged the dentist, questioned his moral fiber and encouraged Iowans to boycott Knight’s dental practice.

So, while Knight’s day in court may have turned out in his favor, this particular staffing decision may wind up costing him more than some legal fees in the long run.