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All-male court decides a woman’s attractiveness is grounds for being fired

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Imagine being fired from your job, not because you're a bad employee but because your boss is attracted to you and his wife finds this threatening.

This is what happened to Melissa Nelson, a dental assistant in Iowa. And according to the Iowa Supreme Court, such firings are not illegal.

CNN reports that Nelson worked for her boss James Knight for more than a decade, but toward the end of her employment, Knight complained that her clothes were too revealing and "distracting." (The court documents do not explain what brought about his sudden complaints about her attire.) Nelson, however, says she wore scrubs to work, which can hardly be considered revealing. Knight also reportedly made suggestive comments, including once asking her how often she experienced an orgasm.

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During the last six months of her employment, the two exchanged text messages outside of work, mostly about "relatively innocuous matters," the court documents state. Nelson, who is married and has children, says she never flirted with him, nor did she seek a sexual relationship. But after Knight's wife discovered their text messages, she persuaded him to fire Nelson. And with a senior pastor of his church present, Knight told Nelson their relationship was hurting his family and dismissed her with one month's severance pay.

On Friday, the all-male Iowa State Supreme Court decided that Nelson's termination did not constitute unlawful gender discrimination, CNN says. It also ruled that since Knight fired Nelson to avoid sexual harassment, the situation did not result in the "hostile work environment" or "abusive atmosphere" that defines sexual harassment under Iowa's Civil Rights Act.

The case has prompted a range of responses, from those who are outraged by the court's ruling to those who side with Knight.

"Wow how messed up is this! So now it's her fault because he can't stop being a nasty old man getting [turned] on by her," one commenter wrote on CNN's site.

"Considering it's Dr. Knight's business, he can hire and fire whomever he chooses," wrote another on the ABC News site. "If she's such a great dental assistant, she'll get another job; no worries there."

Others questioned Knight's wife's demand for Nelson's termination.

"I have news for the wife," one person wrote on CNN.com. "If he is hitting on a gal that he thinks is pretty at the office he is hitting on other women too."

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About the Author

Wency Leung is a general assignment reporter for the Life section. Before joining The Globe in early 2010, she has worked as a reporter in Vancouver, Prague, and Phnom Penh. More

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