Iowa court to reconsider ruling on woman’s firing

The Iowa Supreme Court will reconsider a controversial ruling from last year in which the court said it was legal for a dentist to fire his assistant for being too attractive.

Chief Justice Mark Cady signed an order in late June that resubmitted a lawsuit filed by Melissa Nelson. A new decision could come as early as Friday.

Nelson sued after Webster County dentist James Knight fired her in 2010. She claimed Knight complained to her about being distracted by her appearance. Knight’s wife eventually demanded that Nelson be fired when she discovered in late 2009 that her husband was exchanging text messages with his assistant, usually about child-related matters.

The court ruled 7-0 in December that bosses can fire employees they see as an “irresistible attraction,” even if the employees have not engaged in flirtatious behavior or otherwise done anything wrong. Such firings may be unfair, but they are not unlawful discrimination under the Iowa Civil Rights Act because they are motivated by feelings and emotions, not gender, Justice Edward Mansfield wrote at the time.

Nelson’s attorney, Paige Fiedler, said she was optimistic for a different outcome this time around, arguing that the law was misapplied. She said the all-male court did not understand the gender discrimination that Nelson suffered.

“The more alike a group of judges are, or a group of any people are, the more likely they are to see things in the same way. That’s one reason that we have more than once citizen sitting in the jury box,” Fiedler said. “None of those judges have ever been a woman in the workplace. It’s not that you necessarily need to have one in this category and one in that category, but women do make up half the state and it seems odd to me that there aren’t any women on the Supreme Court.”

Knight’s attorney Stuart Cochrane did not immediately respond to requests for comment. In December, he hailed the ruling as a victory for family values, saying Knight fired Nelson to “preserve his marriage.”

Former Chief Justice Marsha Ternus, who was ousted at the polls in 2010 along with two other judges, said she wasn’t convinced she would have voted any differently than the current justices if she were still on the court.

“I think it is really rare when a woman’s perspective, if you even want to say it is one, will change the outcome of the case,” Ternus said, noting that she has not read the briefs in the case. “There’s nothing in that decision that made me think I would have voted any other way.”