Too Hot to Work: Fighting for Justice

Part 2: Nelson sued Knight, claiming sex discrimination, sparking a legal drama that made headlines.
6:34 | 08/02/13

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Transcript for Too Hot to Work: Fighting for Justice
Reporter: Ever thought you could be too good-looking for your own good? 33-year-old melissa nelson didn't either. But she was fired from her job as a dental assistant, with a month's severance, after ten years, simply because the 54-year-old dentist she worked for found her irresistibly attractive and a threat to his marriage. I'm sure you remember the song "i'm too sexy." Well, it seems it's actually to be too sexy for your job. Reporter: What was life like when you were working with him? It was good. I was home with my kids every night. We had just bought some land and I made the first payment and lost my job two days later. I've read lots of comments of people who say, good for him, at least he was honest. A lot of men would have just slept with her. Reporter: This is melissa's attorney. I can assure you there is about a snowball's chance in hell that would have happened. Reporter: Seeking damages and lost pay, melissa took her cause to the iowa district court in august 2010 and filed a gender discrimination suit against dr. James knight -- but the judge dismissed the case before trial. I was hurt, I think more than anything, I was hurt. Reporter: Dr. Knight declined our repeated requests for an interview, but his attorney told abc news, "she was not terminated because of her gender, but to preserve the best interest of his marriage." We had admission after admission after admission from the defendant himself that her sex played a part in his decision. Reporter: So in december, melissa appealed to the iowa supreme court. We are not allowed to discriminate against someone because of who god made them. Having breasts is pretty close connected to being a woman. Reporter: But the seven justices ruled that although the one month's severance was rather ungenerous, terminating an employee is okay, "simply because the boss views the employee as an irresistible attraction." Especially since the wife felt her marriage was threatened. So, you're responsible for your boss, who can't control himself. That's kind of what the supreme court has led us to believe. I don't think the law is out of touch, I mean this guy is a jerk. But being a jerk is not illegal. Reporter: This is a senior fellow and constitution in institutional studistudies. You can fire someone for being tall, for being short, for cheering for the wrong team, for wearing the wrong color. Reporter: But you cannot be fired if you're part of a protected class, such as gender, race or religion. Still, shapiro says, melissa's case is not about gender. He's a man, she's a woman. He's attracted to her. How is it not a gender issue? That their relationship was she was fired because he felt that their relationship was affecting his marriage. Reporter: All he has to do was control himself. How hard could that be? Well, he feared that if he kept her on, then he might start harassing her. Reporter: He might start harassing her? He said, "how often do you have orgasms?" And, "if you see a bulge in my pants, it's because your clothes are too tight." Well, it's inappropriate, but she didn't complain. Reporter: The court agreed. But in the court of public opinion, the ruling surprised -- and stung. Her only crime was looking too good. Bosses can legally fire any employee they see as an irresistible attraction. If a man is saying that a woman is so irresistible, that he's afraid he will sexually offend against her, what does that say about women in the military? What does that say about, about equality in any workplace? Reporter: Rekha basu wrote a scathing column for iowa's "des moines register," calling the seven male justices' decision embarrassing. I think a female justice working through her own first-hand experience and perspective would have had a different take on it. Reporter: Melissa filed yet another appeal, and, in a surprise just last month, perhaps because of the public outcry -- can I just say -- a little november cane in mr. Happy. Reporter: The high court agreed to reconsider their earlier ruling. A rare occurrence. But the same seven judges came up with the same ruling and clarified that you can be fired, "because the boss's spouse views the relationship as a threat to her marriage." Melissa is out of legal options. She thinks it's laughable a jury of her peers will never get to decide if she was wronged, so natural naturalryly, she brought her case to comedy central. If melissa wants to clean teeth, she shouldn't have the to worry about her boss's dirty mind. That's why I invited her to give me an oral exam in hollywood, where women are never objectified. Reporter: This is the standard issue scrub suit and lab coat she wore to work but this is the outfit she wore on "tosh.O." Open up and say meliss-ahhhhh. Good for her. I think it was her way of saying how ridiculous these allegations about her were. Reporter: He called you the best dental assistant he ever had. Why haven't you got back into the industry? I think my biggest fear is trusting someone. Trusting somebody that I have to work that close to. I wouldn't want to be hurt again. Reporter: Today, the former dental assistant, who by day, was earning a good salary with benefits, has lost her livelihood. Now scraping by on tips. She's waiting tables at a sports bar by night. It's not an easy job. Very demanding. Always on your feet. Reporter: But she's lost something else. Even more important to her. Precious time with her children. What is life like now? I tuck them in two nights a week. That's it. Reporter: Do you ever see dr. Knight around town? No. I see his lawyer. He comes and eats at the restaurant that I work at. And I can either pick my head up and go with it or I can walk away with my tail between my legs. And I'm not going to let that happen. So, was the dentist courageous for protecting his marriage or does he deserve a kick in the teeth for what he did? Let us know your thoughts by using #abc2020. We'll be right back. Next -- want to turn the man

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