(Des Moines Register) -- A woman fired from her job because she was an "irresistible
employee" has gotten another chance at her sexual discrimination lawsuit
after the Iowa Supreme Court this week took the rare step of
withdrawing the unanimous opinion it issued in the case in December.
Nelson had worked for 10 years for Webster County dentist James Knight
before she was fired in 2010 because of her looks. Knight eventually
told Nelson's husband that "she's a big threat to our marriage" and that
Knight feared he would attempt an affair if Nelson continued to work
The court ruled that such conduct does not amount to
sexual harassment because it was based on specific emotions tied to a
specific relationship and not based solely on a person's gender.
The decision drew national attention that included segments on "Good Morning America" and the Comedy Central program "Tosh.0."
Nelson earlier this year asked the court to re-consider its decision.
Monday, Chief Justice Mark Cady signed an order resubmitting Nelson's
lawsuit for reconsideration by the court effective 9 a.m. Wednesday.
Cady's order says the case will be reopened for discussion by the court;
there will be no further oral arguments or additional input from
Knight. Nelson's appeal will simply be re-evaluated based on previously
submitted evidence and legal briefs.
A new decision could come as
early Friday, when justices theoretically are scheduled to wrap up all
pending cases submitted during the prior term.
A list of the coming rulings is scheduled to be released this morning.
Iowa Supreme Court spokesman said it's "rare" for justices to grant
petitions to rehear a case. Five such requests have been granted over
the past decade.
Ryan Koopmans, a Des Moines attorney who blogs
about legal cases at iowaappeals.com, said justices could have made
technical changes to the opinion without granting a formal rehearing.
all likelihood, at least one justice has already changed his mind;
otherwise there would be no need to rehear the case after six months,"
Koopmans said. "So I expect that there will be at least one opinion
coming out in favor of Melissa Nelson. The question is whether that
opinion is the majority or the dissent."
Neither Nelson nor her attorney could be reached for comment Wednesday.
Wilson, legal director for the American Civil Liberties Union of Iowa,
called the court's decision to rehear Nelson's case "an encouraging
development" because "an issue of this importance probably deserves a
"On balance, while there's no right to dress the way you want to in the workplace, there is a right to be a woman," Wilson said.
Nelson, a former assistant, filed her lawsuit after she was fired based on Knight's stated irresistible attraction to her.
papers say it was roughly 18 months before the end of Nelson's
employment that Knight began to complain about the distractions caused
by Nelson's appearance. According to the previous ruling, "Dr. Knight
acknowledges that he once told Nelson that if she saw his pants bulging,
she would know her clothing was too revealing."
Knight's wife discovered in late 2009 that her husband had been
exchanging text messages with Nelson (usually about child-related
matters) and demanded that the assistant be fired.
had argued on appeal, according to court documents, that "if Dr. Knight
would have been liable to Nelson for sexually harassing her, he should
not be able to avoid liability for terminating her out of fear that he
was going to harass her."
The court's December opinion saw a difference between decisions based on personal relationships and one based on gender.
civil rights laws seek to insure that employees are treated the same
regardless of their sex or other protected status," the justices wrote.
"Yet even taking Nelson's view of the facts, Dr. Knight's unfair
decision to terminate Nelson (while paying her a rather ungenerous one
month's severance) does not jeopardize that goal."