Jeff Eckhoff,The Des Moines Register
DES MOINES, Iowa -- 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.
Melissa 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 for him.
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 reconsider its decision.
On Monday, Chief Justice Mark Cady signed an order resubmitting Nelson's lawsuit for reconsideration by the court. 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.
An 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.
"In 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.
Randall 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 second look."
"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.
Court 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."
Documents say 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.
Nelson's lawyer 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.
"The 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."