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New Twist in the "Irresistible Employee" Case

In a previous blog entry, “Can’t We All Just Get Along? Dealing With Odd Employee Complaints,” we touched on the recent Iowa Supreme Court decision in Nelson v. James H. Knight DDS, P.C. In Nelson, the plaintiff, Melissa Nelson, was terminated from her 10-year position as a dental assistant for being too attractive. The Iowa Supreme Court ruled that Melissa Nelson’s employer did not commit gender discrimination when she was fired, at the request of the employer’s wife, because the employer was too attracted to her. Typically, a state supreme court decision is the end of the litigation road for a case. But not this case.

On Monday, June 24, 2013, almost 6 months from the original decision, the Iowa Supreme Court agreed to withdraw its December 2012 decision and reconsider the case without additional oral argument. Then, on July 12, 2013, the Iowa Supreme Court issued a new decision, ruling again that Melissa Nelson was not discriminated against because of her gender. The court stated there was "insufficient evidence offered ... in light of the undisputed evidence of a consensual personal relationship" to conclude that Dr. James Knight fired Melissa Nelson, based on her status as a woman.” The court emphasized, however, that the case may have been resolved differently had Ms. Nelson brought a sexual harassment or hostile work environment claim.

The case also may have been resolved differently has Ms. Nelson been employed in Madison, WI instead of Iowa.  This is because the City of Madison has an ordinance prohibiting discrimination based upon a person’s “physical appearance.”  See City of Madison, Code of Ordinances Ch. 39. Obviously, employers must be cautious that they are not making employment-related decisions that discriminate against a protected class. And, of course, it is important to contact your DeWitt attorney whenever you have an employment-related question.

About the Author

Barret Van Sicklen is an attorney practicing out of our Madison office. He is a member of the Labor & Employment Relations, Litigation, and Real Estate & Land Use practice groups. Contact Barret by email or by phone at 608.252.9386.

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