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Employee Fired Because Her Boss Found Her Too Attractive

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The workplace is commonly held under scrutiny as a setting for sex discrimination. In many instances, women are not hired or promoted because they are not sexually attractive enough. Apparently, the opposite can also be true. Recently, dental assistant Melissa Nelson was fired by her employer, James H. Knight, because she was too attractive.

Nelson promptly filed suit for sex discrimination in Idaho. Her case was dismissed by the lower court, and this ruling was subsequently upheld by the Idaho Supreme Court. This ruling is in accordance with a line of discrimination cases which held that consensual personal relationships are not a basis for sex discrimination.

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Melissa Nelson had worked in Dr. Knight’s office for a decade without any apparent issues. Both Nelson and Knight were married. The trouble started when Knight’s wife discovered text messages from Ms. Nelson on her husband’s phone. After Dr. Knight consulted a pastor and spoke with Ms. Nelson’s husband, the dentist terminated Nelson’s employment.

It was eventually discovered in court that Knight had expressed sexual attraction for Nelson as far back as eighteen months before Nelson’s termination. Nelson received one month’s worth of pay as a severance package. Nelson was replaced by another woman on Knight’s all female staff.

Most of the public is concerned that Nelson was fired for being too attractive and that the Idaho Supreme Court is entirely male. There is some basis for public concern, but the real issue in sex discrimination is whether Nelson was fired because she is a woman. The facts of the case do not show this, and the gender of the courts cannot change the facts of this case. Nelson was replaced by another woman, hardly an action Knight would take if he disfavored women in general. Indeed, his entire staff is female, which completely undermines the argument that Nelson was terminated for being a woman.

Of course, this position ignores the idea that sexual attraction is tied to the sexes of the parties. Nelson’s proponents would claim that Knight felt attraction to Nelson partly because she is a woman. If Nelson was not a woman she would not be the target of her employer’s advances.

The problem with Nelson’s position is that it rests on an assumption that the facts cannot support. Knight works with other women, but he has not expressed sexual attraction to any of them. Indeed, it is unknown if Knight has ever experienced sexual attraction for other men. Sexual attraction could be linked to individuals rather than genders.  The Idaho courts found that Nelson was not terminated because she is an attractive woman; rather, she was terminated because she was attractive to her boss. Since most employment is at-will and sexual attraction is not an illegal basis for firing an employee, Knight had the right to fire Nelson.

The most disturbing part about this case is the slippery slope it could create. Nelson’s lawyer articulated the slippery slope well when she said that employers now have the right to hire “big breast” women over “small breast” women because employers found big breasts more attractive.

The breast example is not applicable to this case though. In the Nelson case, the employer was attracted to the employee as a person. In the breast hypothetical, the employers are picking out a trait of women in general, and using it as the basis for judging all women. The hypothetical is a clear example of women as a group being discriminated, while the real case involves a single individual experiencing a bad change in a work relationship.

The worst aspect of this case is that Nelson is not a fault. Although she had an unusually close relationship with her boss, there is no evidence she returned his desire for sexual intimacy. Nelson’s attorney had originally pursued sexual harassment as well, but dropped the charges when Knight presented the termination as an attempt to avoid sexual harassment. If any hope for justice comes out of this case, it can be found in the dentist’s Yelp reviews. Knight might have won the legal battle, but he lost in the court of public opinion.

 

Jason Cheung

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