Fired for Being Too Pretty?

Published Jan. 6, 2015

Can You Be Fired for Being Too Pretty?

Can you be fired for being too pretty? Of the many different claims of discrimination, can being too attractive be one of them? One such case seems to suggest the answer is “yes.”

Fired for Being Too Pretty?

Take the case of Amanda Holley vs. Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, et al.

Holley was an academy recruit at the Port Authority Police Department. According to a complaint filed with the U.S. District Court, Holley repeatedly suffered sexual harassment, ridicule, intimidation, and emotional distress by her instructors/supervisors during training.

The alleged offenses included instructors singling her out by directing her to perform squat thrusts in front of other recruits, calling her names such as “Barbie Doll” and “American Girl Doll,” and commenting on the size of her chest. One instructor reportedly even told her, “When you are killed in the line of duty, I’ll make sure you look pretty for your family.”

During one pepper spray training event, Holley was sprayed by more than four officers causing her eyes and face to swell. Instructors paraded her in front of her fellow recruits so everyone could see her face, implying she’d had a quick “Botox” injection and calling her “Angelina Jolie.” A fellow recruit told Holley afterward that it looked “as if she was being spray-painted with graffiti.” No other recruit was given this same treatment.

According to Professional Security Training Network, that type of spray “is so concentrated, it does not take much to shut down a person. It is designed to stick to skin, hair, and clothes.” It “causes localized swelling of any moist surface, such as skin, eyes, nose, mouth, throat and lungs…causes involuntary closure of the eyes.”

What Happened Next?

Holley confided in a few fellow recruits that she wanted to formally complain about the harassment she was experiencing, but she was repeatedly threatened and intimidated and feared retaliation. Holley alleged that several of her instructors would regularly comment “snitches get stitches and end up in ditches.”

About a month before graduation, Holley was informed that she had failed her firearms evaluation and was asked to resign. Academy procedure for firearms range training requires recruits to sign their targets before they shoot at them. The targets are then graded and evaluated with the recruit. Holley maintains that she never saw any of her graded targets and instructors never evaluated them with her or instructed her about how to correct any issues. After refusing to resign, she was fired. Holley filed her complaint in December 2014.

New Jersey Law Against Discrimination (LAD)

According to the New Jersey law against discrimination (LAD) it is “unlawful to subject people to differential treatment based on race, creed, color, national origin, nationality, ancestry, age, sex (including pregnancy), familial status, marital status, domestic partnership or civil union status, affectional or sexual orientation, gender identity or expression, atypical hereditary cellular or blood trait, genetic information, liability for military service, and mental or physical disability, perceived disability, and AIDS and HIV status. The LAD prohibits unlawful discrimination in employment, housing, places of public accommodation, credit and business contracts.”

Sexual harassment is considered discrimination and is covered by the LAD. The law states that “hostile work environment sexual harassment occurs when an employee is subjected to sexual, abusive, or offensive conduct because of his or her gender.”

Melissa Nelson v. James H. Knight DDS, P.C.

In a similar case, Melissa Nelson worked for James Knight as a dental assistant for over 10 years. During her last year of employment, Knight began complaining that her clothing was too tight and “distracting.” Knight sent several inappropriate text messages stating if she “saw his pants bulging,” she would know that her “clothing was too revealing” and asked how often she experienced an orgasm.

Nelson never complained about the text messages, but says she also never reciprocated the behavior. She maintains that she considered him a friend and father figure.

Knight’s wife discovered the text messages and demanded that he fire Nelson because she was a threat to their marriage. Knight ultimately agreed and after consulting with a senior pastor of his church, fired Nelson.

Nelson sued on the basis of gender discrimination. The court ruled in favor of the doctor, stating “Ms. Nelson was fired not because of her gender but because she was a threat to the marriage of Dr. Knight.”

The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission

The legal requirements for a hostile work environment are:

  • Actions or behavior that discriminates against a protected classification such as age, race, religion, sex, or disability
  • The behavior must last over time, and not be limited to an off-color remark or two
  • The hostile behavior, actions or communication must be severe and create an environment that a reasonable person would find intimidating, hostile, abusive and that disrupts work. Another form of severity occurs if the hostile work environment interferes with an employee’s career advancement
  • The employer knows about the actions or behavior and did not sufficiently intervene

This Employment Law News blog is intended for market awareness only, it is not to be used for legal advice or counsel.

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