United States: Can You Fire Someone For Being Too Sexy?

Last Updated: July 12 2013
Article by Richard R. Meneghello

Is it possible to fire an employee because you think they are too sexy? 

In a recent case decided by the Iowa Supreme Court, the judges held that such an action is acceptable under the law.  Before your mind starts wandering too far about the repercussions of this decision, let's not get ahead of ourselves.  This case has been widely ridiculed as a misapplication of commonly-accepted workplace law, a one-of-a-kind oddity.  Still, it's out there.  

The facts of the case start innocently enough....

"Please Cover Up" 

In 1999, Dr. James Knight hired Melissa Nelson as a dental assistant in his Fort Dodge, Iowa dental office.  Over the next ten years, they enjoyed a good working relationship – Ms. Nelson was a good dental assistant, and Dr. Knight became her "father figure" and mentor.  She says that Dr. Knight always treated her with respect.  Both were married and had children, and things seemed to be going great.

But under the surface a sense of unease was growing in Dr. Knight as he found himself becoming attracted to Nelson.  They found themselves texting each other outside of work on innocuous matters – their kids' activities and other similar banter.  Melissa says that she never led Knight on, never flirted with him, nor sought out any sort of romantic relationship. 

To his credit, he did take a few reasonable steps in an attempt to quash his feelings toward her.  Starting in about 2008, Knight informed Nelson that her clothing was too tight and distracting to him and asked her to wear more professional attire.  On several occasions he even asked her to put on a lab coat over her clothes.  Although she denies that she ever wore tight or inappropriate clothing (saying she almost always wore medical scrubs to work), she would indulge the doctor and cover up.   

Dr. Knight wasn't completely innocent, however, as his statements and texts to her became increasingly flirtatious.  He told her that she would know that her clothes were too tight if she saw a "bulge" in his pants.  Another time when discussing the infrequency of Melissa's sex life, Dr. Knight told her, "that's like having a Lamborghini in the garage and never driving it."  He once texted her and asked her how often she experienced an orgasm. 

In late 2009, Dr. Knight's wife learned that he was texting with Nelson outside of work and confronted him, saying that her presence at the office presented a threat to their marriage and demanding she be terminated.  In order to preserve his home life, he agreed.  One day in January, 2010, out of the blue, Knight called Nelson into a meeting where he had arranged to have his pastor present as a witness and fired her.  He read from a prepared statement and told her their relationship had become a detriment to his family and it was in his best interests to let her go.  He later claimed that he feared that he would have tried to have an affair with Melissa down the road if he hadn't taken this step.

Nelson sued Knight for gender discrimination, but her claim was dismissed by the court, and in late December 2012 the Iowa Supreme Court (comprised of seven men and no women, by the way) rejected her appeal.  They ruled that there was no evidence that Knight fired Nelson because she was a woman, noting in fact that he had hired another woman to replace her (probably one decidedly less attractive to his tastes).  They concluded that Nelson presented an "irresistible attraction" to Knight, and while it may not have been "fair" to fire her, there was nothing illegal about the termination.

A Worthwhile Defense?

Our advice to employers: don't try this argument.  It's reminiscent of the "creative" approaches that some companies took before the law was amended to include pregnancy discrimination as a cause of action.  They would argue, "I didn't fire her because she was a woman – I fired her because she was pregnant.  I would've fired anyone who got pregnant, it just so happens that only women become pregnant.  That's not my fault."  Courts were quick to reject this imaginative theory, recognizing that it was a veiled act of gender discrimination no matter how you put it. 

The same holds true here.  The Iowa Supreme Court agreed with Dr. Knight that he didn't fire Melissa because she was a woman, but because she presented herself as a threat to the Knight family marriage.  But the reality of the situation is that only a woman could have presented a threat to the marriage, and therefore Melissa was seemingly being unfairly punished for being a woman. 

A better approach is to enforce your no-harassment policies, and require individual managers to take personal responsibility to resist their own temptations at the workplace, rather than scapegoating a co-worker simply because they think she's "too sexy for the office."


Interestingly enough, on June 24, 2013 – six months after the decision – the Iowa Supreme Court agreed to reconsider the case, which is a rare procedural step for any appellate court to take.  We'll let you know whether the court changes the ruling or just makes technical corrections to the decision...

A version of this article also appeared in the February 27, 2013 issue of The Daily Journal of Commerce and in the March 28, 2013 issue of the Idaho Business Review

The content of this article is intended to provide a general guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought about your specific circumstances.

To print this article, all you need is to be registered on Mondaq.com.

Click to Login as an existing user or Register so you can print this article.

Richard R. Meneghello
Similar Articles
Relevancy Powered by MondaqAI
Fisher Phillips LLP
In association with
Related Topics
Similar Articles
Relevancy Powered by MondaqAI
Fisher Phillips LLP
Related Articles
Related Video
Up-coming Events Search
Font Size:
Mondaq on Twitter
Register for Access and our Free Biweekly Alert for
This service is completely free. Access 250,000 archived articles from 100+ countries and get a personalised email twice a week covering developments (and yes, our lawyers like to think you’ve read our Disclaimer).
Email Address
Company Name
Confirm Password
Mondaq Topics -- Select your Interests
 Law Performance
 Law Practice
 Media & IT
 Real Estate
 Wealth Mgt
Asia Pacific
European Union
Latin America
Middle East
United States
Worldwide Updates
Registration (you must scroll down to set your data preferences)

Mondaq Ltd requires you to register and provide information that personally identifies you, including your content preferences, for three primary purposes (full details of Mondaq’s use of your personal data can be found in our Privacy and Cookies Notice):

  • To allow you to personalize the Mondaq websites you are visiting to show content ("Content") relevant to your interests.
  • To enable features such as password reminder, news alerts, email a colleague, and linking from Mondaq (and its affiliate sites) to your website.
  • To produce demographic feedback for our content providers ("Contributors") who contribute Content for free for your use.

Mondaq hopes that our registered users will support us in maintaining our free to view business model by consenting to our use of your personal data as described below.

Mondaq has a "free to view" business model. Our services are paid for by Contributors in exchange for Mondaq providing them with access to information about who accesses their content. Once personal data is transferred to our Contributors they become a data controller of this personal data. They use it to measure the response that their articles are receiving, as a form of market research. They may also use it to provide Mondaq users with information about their products and services.

Details of each Contributor to which your personal data will be transferred is clearly stated within the Content that you access. For full details of how this Contributor will use your personal data, you should review the Contributor’s own Privacy Notice.

Please indicate your preference below:

Yes, I am happy to support Mondaq in maintaining its free to view business model by agreeing to allow Mondaq to share my personal data with Contributors whose Content I access
No, I do not want Mondaq to share my personal data with Contributors

Also please let us know whether you are happy to receive communications promoting products and services offered by Mondaq:

Yes, I am happy to received promotional communications from Mondaq
No, please do not send me promotional communications from Mondaq
Terms & Conditions

Mondaq.com (the Website) is owned and managed by Mondaq Ltd (Mondaq). Mondaq grants you a non-exclusive, revocable licence to access the Website and associated services, such as the Mondaq News Alerts (Services), subject to and in consideration of your compliance with the following terms and conditions of use (Terms). Your use of the Website and/or Services constitutes your agreement to the Terms. Mondaq may terminate your use of the Website and Services if you are in breach of these Terms or if Mondaq decides to terminate the licence granted hereunder for any reason whatsoever.

Use of www.mondaq.com

To Use Mondaq.com you must be: eighteen (18) years old or over; legally capable of entering into binding contracts; and not in any way prohibited by the applicable law to enter into these Terms in the jurisdiction which you are currently located.

You may use the Website as an unregistered user, however, you are required to register as a user if you wish to read the full text of the Content or to receive the Services.

You may not modify, publish, transmit, transfer or sell, reproduce, create derivative works from, distribute, perform, link, display, or in any way exploit any of the Content, in whole or in part, except as expressly permitted in these Terms or with the prior written consent of Mondaq. You may not use electronic or other means to extract details or information from the Content. Nor shall you extract information about users or Contributors in order to offer them any services or products.

In your use of the Website and/or Services you shall: comply with all applicable laws, regulations, directives and legislations which apply to your Use of the Website and/or Services in whatever country you are physically located including without limitation any and all consumer law, export control laws and regulations; provide to us true, correct and accurate information and promptly inform us in the event that any information that you have provided to us changes or becomes inaccurate; notify Mondaq immediately of any circumstances where you have reason to believe that any Intellectual Property Rights or any other rights of any third party may have been infringed; co-operate with reasonable security or other checks or requests for information made by Mondaq from time to time; and at all times be fully liable for the breach of any of these Terms by a third party using your login details to access the Website and/or Services

however, you shall not: do anything likely to impair, interfere with or damage or cause harm or distress to any persons, or the network; do anything that will infringe any Intellectual Property Rights or other rights of Mondaq or any third party; or use the Website, Services and/or Content otherwise than in accordance with these Terms; use any trade marks or service marks of Mondaq or the Contributors, or do anything which may be seen to take unfair advantage of the reputation and goodwill of Mondaq or the Contributors, or the Website, Services and/or Content.

Mondaq reserves the right, in its sole discretion, to take any action that it deems necessary and appropriate in the event it considers that there is a breach or threatened breach of the Terms.

Mondaq’s Rights and Obligations

Unless otherwise expressly set out to the contrary, nothing in these Terms shall serve to transfer from Mondaq to you, any Intellectual Property Rights owned by and/or licensed to Mondaq and all rights, title and interest in and to such Intellectual Property Rights will remain exclusively with Mondaq and/or its licensors.

Mondaq shall use its reasonable endeavours to make the Website and Services available to you at all times, but we cannot guarantee an uninterrupted and fault free service.

Mondaq reserves the right to make changes to the services and/or the Website or part thereof, from time to time, and we may add, remove, modify and/or vary any elements of features and functionalities of the Website or the services.

Mondaq also reserves the right from time to time to monitor your Use of the Website and/or services.


The Content is general information only. It is not intended to constitute legal advice or seek to be the complete and comprehensive statement of the law, nor is it intended to address your specific requirements or provide advice on which reliance should be placed. Mondaq and/or its Contributors and other suppliers make no representations about the suitability of the information contained in the Content for any purpose. All Content provided "as is" without warranty of any kind. Mondaq and/or its Contributors and other suppliers hereby exclude and disclaim all representations, warranties or guarantees with regard to the Content, including all implied warranties and conditions of merchantability, fitness for a particular purpose, title and non-infringement. To the maximum extent permitted by law, Mondaq expressly excludes all representations, warranties, obligations, and liabilities arising out of or in connection with all Content. In no event shall Mondaq and/or its respective suppliers be liable for any special, indirect or consequential damages or any damages whatsoever resulting from loss of use, data or profits, whether in an action of contract, negligence or other tortious action, arising out of or in connection with the use of the Content or performance of Mondaq’s Services.


Mondaq may alter or amend these Terms by amending them on the Website. By continuing to Use the Services and/or the Website after such amendment, you will be deemed to have accepted any amendment to these Terms.

These Terms shall be governed by and construed in accordance with the laws of England and Wales and you irrevocably submit to the exclusive jurisdiction of the courts of England and Wales to settle any dispute which may arise out of or in connection with these Terms. If you live outside the United Kingdom, English law shall apply only to the extent that English law shall not deprive you of any legal protection accorded in accordance with the law of the place where you are habitually resident ("Local Law"). In the event English law deprives you of any legal protection which is accorded to you under Local Law, then these terms shall be governed by Local Law and any dispute or claim arising out of or in connection with these Terms shall be subject to the non-exclusive jurisdiction of the courts where you are habitually resident.

You may print and keep a copy of these Terms, which form the entire agreement between you and Mondaq and supersede any other communications or advertising in respect of the Service and/or the Website.

No delay in exercising or non-exercise by you and/or Mondaq of any of its rights under or in connection with these Terms shall operate as a waiver or release of each of your or Mondaq’s right. Rather, any such waiver or release must be specifically granted in writing signed by the party granting it.

If any part of these Terms is held unenforceable, that part shall be enforced to the maximum extent permissible so as to give effect to the intent of the parties, and the Terms shall continue in full force and effect.

Mondaq shall not incur any liability to you on account of any loss or damage resulting from any delay or failure to perform all or any part of these Terms if such delay or failure is caused, in whole or in part, by events, occurrences, or causes beyond the control of Mondaq. Such events, occurrences or causes will include, without limitation, acts of God, strikes, lockouts, server and network failure, riots, acts of war, earthquakes, fire and explosions.

By clicking Register you state you have read and agree to our Terms and Conditions