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Nelson vs. Knight

The Case of the Irresistibly Beautiful Woman

by CHRISTOPHER BRAUCHLI

Faithful readers know that I do not normally use my knowledge of the law to expound upon its virtues and flaws.  Occasionally, however, I feel it incumbent upon me to explain intricacies that seem peculiarly suited to a matter of current interest to non-lawyers among my readers.  This is true with respect to the now famous case of Nelson vs. Knight, a case from the Supreme Court of Iowa.

The case involves an apparently irresistibly beautiful woman, Melissa Nelson, and her easily distracted employer, James H. Knight. Jim is a dentist and Melissa was one of his assistants whom he fired because of her beauty after she had worked in  his office for 10 ½ years.  The problems she presented to Jim were well described by the court in its opinion. It said that during the 1 ½ years preceding her firing Jim had complained to her that “her clothing was too tight and revealing and ‘distracting.’” During the trial Jim said:  “I don’t think it’s good for me to see her wearing things that accentuate her body.”  To help him avoid the distracting sight he sometimes asked her to put on a lab coat, presumably on occasions when her body was being particularly accentuated by her clothing.   Melissa did not think her clothing was particularly revealing and nor did she think her clothing inappropriate.  Jim tried to help her understand when it was inappropriate by telling her that “if she saw his pants bulging, she would know that her clothing was too revealing.”  It is not clear from the court’s opinion what Jim expected her to do on such an occasion although presumably she could ask to be excused to return home and put on clothing that did not have an untoward effect on Jim’s pants. On another occasion Jim told the court that Melissa had made some reference to infrequency in her sex life and that he, apparently being a car buff as well as a connoisseur of beautiful women, told her “That’s like having a Lamborghini in the garage and never driving it.”  There is no indication in the opinion whether Melissa objected to being compared to a car.

In 2009 Jim took his children on a vacation and during his absence his wife, Jeanne, discovered that Melissa and Jim had exchanged text messages.  She demanded that Jim fire Melissa “since she was a big threat to our marriage.” She and Jim went to their pastor who agreed with Jeanne.  Shortly thereafter Jim called Melissa into his office and in the presence of another pastor from his church, read Melissa a prepared statement that said she was fired.  He then handed her an envelope containing one month’s severance as reward for her 10-½ years of service, a sum the court described as “rather ungenerous.”   Melissa was not happy at having been fired.  She sued Jim saying she had been fired on the grounds of gender discrimination.  And this is where my offering readers an instruction on the law comes into play.

Would-be-lawyers will assume that Jim defended himself on the grounds that Melissa was an attractive nuisance. Clearly Melissa was attractive and being attractive and, in the eyes of Jim’s wife, a threat to their marriage, she was a great nuisance.  The layperson would, therefore, assume that Jim would defend himself saying Melissa was an attractive nuisance and that would be the end of the matter.  That is, however, not how the law works.

People can never be attractive nuisances.  That doctrine, reduced to its simplest terms, only applies to a hazardous object or condition on real estate and then, only if the injured person is a child.  If a dangerous piece of equipment is located on a piece of property and a youngster  is injured playing on it, the  owner of the property may be liable for injuries the child incurs as a result of playing on the equipment even though the child was trespassing.  An adult can never be an attractive nuisance even if, for example, a person as beautiful as Melissa, sunbathing in the nude caused someone in a neighboring swimming pool to execute a dive imperfectly and sustain an injury because of being distracted by the sunbather.  The sunbather will never be convicted of being an attractive nuisance.  For the foregoing reasons, Jim’s defense was not that Melissa was an attractive nuisance, as attractive as such a defense would seem to the non-lawyer.

Melissa sued Jim under an Iowa law that “makes it generally unlawful to discharge or otherwise discriminate against an employee because of the employee’s sex.”  After examining many cases involving firings of members of the opposite (and sometimes same) sex, the court concluded that Melissa’s firing because his wife thought her a threat to her marriage, was an employment decision based on personal relations, not gender-based nor based on factors that might be a proxy for gender. She lost. Jim’s attorney described the outcome as a victory for family values since Melissa was fired so Jim could save his marriage.  Melissa, it turns out, was a sacrificial lamb rather than an attractive nuisance.

Christopher Brauchli is an attorney based in Boulder, Colorado. He can be reached at: brauchli.56@post.harvard.edu.