Melissa Nelson is “devastated” according to ABC News. She was fired from her job as a dental assistant after 10 years of service because her male employer found her attractive and felt termination necessary to protect his marriage.
Nelson was hired in 1999 at the age of 21 to be a dental assistant in the office of James Knight, DDS in Webster County, Iowa. Over the next 10 years, she worked side by side with Dr. Knight and thought of him as a father figure. During the last six months of Nelson’s employ, she and Dr. Knight began texting one another about mostly benign personal matters. Dr. Knight’s wife discovered the texting and demanded her husband terminate Ms. Nelson. After talking with their priest, Ms. Nelson was called in and terminated with the priest present as a witness.
Shortly after termination, Nelson made a sex discrimination claim on the basis that Dr. Knight would not have terminated her if she were a male. The Iowa Supreme Court, did not agree with Ms. Nelson and commentators everywhere seem to have an opinion. When the issue was discussed on Good Morning America, the female hosts both commented how wrong it was for an employer to fire a woman for being attractive. Ms. Nelson, when interviewed, stated that it signals that men can do whatever they want in the workplace.
It is a sad situation and I am sorry Ms. Nelson lost her job, but I agree with the court – not just on the law, but on the facts as well. I can’t speak for Iowa, but in Texas where employment is at-will, the employer can terminate an employee at any time and the employee can quit at any time. Both parties are generally permitted to terminate the relationship for no reason at all. If Dr. Knight felt his marriage was at risk, who should say that he could not fire the employee?
Would Ms. Nelson say that she should not be able to quit if her husband wanted her to because Dr. Knight was young, rich, and handsome? And, what about the female business owner that terminates the attractive male employee to protect her marriage?
In this case, the evidence showed that Dr. Knight never harassed or propositioned Ms. Nelson. He met his obligation to be respectful of her. The fact that she was a female was not the deciding point. Should Dr. Knight be forced to continue to work in an intolerable environment – which he is supposed to have total control over – just because it might be unfair to Ms. Nelson?
No, he should not.