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Iowa court OK’s firing based on attraction

IOWA CITY — A dentist acted legally when he fired a longtime assistant because he had grown too attracted to her and worried he would try to start an affair, the Iowa Supreme Court reaffirmed Friday in its second crack at the controversial case.

Coming to the same outcome as it did in December, but clarifying its rationale, the court found that bosses can fire employees that they and their spouses see as threats to their marriages. The court said such firings do not count as sex discrimination because they are motivated by feelings, not gender.

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The ruling upholds a judge’s dismissal of a discrimination lawsuit filed by Melissa Nelson against James Knight. The dentist fired the 33-year-old Nelson — two decades his junior — after his wife learned of text messages between the two. The married mother of two had worked for Knight for 10 years, and he considered her his best assistant.

Nelson’s attorney had asked the court to reconsider its December decision, calling it a blow for gender equity in the workplace. The all-male court took the unusual step last month of withdrawing its opinion, granting a motion to reconsider for just the fifth time in the last decade.

Nelson has said she viewed Knight as a father figure and never sought a romantic relationship with him. Chief Justice Mark Cady said that may be true, but that they still had a relationship that went beyond the ‘‘reasonable parameters of workplace interaction.’’

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