Iowa Supreme Court Clarifies Iowa Civil Rights Act Individual Liability, Disability Discrimination, Failure to Accommodate, and Retaliation Standards
By: Nate Borland
On Friday, June 25th, the Iowa Supreme Court filed a decision addressing several issues under the Iowa Civil Rights Act. In Rumsey v. Woodgrain Millwork, Inc., a discharged employee filed disability discrimination and retaliation claims against his former employer. The employee was injured at work in early 2015, and the employer provided the employee with temporary light-duty work while he recovered. On December 11, 2015, the employer discharged the employee. After trial, a jury awarded the employee $58,000 in back pay, $300,000 in past emotional distress damages, and $150,000 in future emotional distress damages.
The employer appealed, arguing the employee could not assert disability discrimination or failure to accommodate the claim because he was not qualified to perform any permanent job for the employer. The employer also argued that two individually named defendants could not be individually liable because they were not the employee’s supervisors.
To bring a disability discrimination claim against an employer, the employee must be qualified to perform the essential functions of his job. This inquiry considers the employee’s permanent job as well as any vacant position to which the employee could have been assigned as an accommodation. The employee urged the Court to analyze his temporary light-duty position, but the Court rejected his argument. The Court explained that “to bring a disability discrimination or failure-to-accommodate claim, [the employee] bears the burden of first proving he was a qualified individual, which includes identifying a permanent position he was qualified to perform, given the proper accommodations.” Accordingly, employees cannot rely on a temporary light-duty position when bringing a disability discrimination claim.
The Court also analyzed the employee’s retaliation claim. The employee argued that he was fired for making a request for accommodation. Courts have previously assumed that such a request constitutes “protected activity” and that firing an employee for requesting an accommodation could run afoul of the Iowa Civil Rights Act. Today, however, the Court clarified that only those requests for reasonable accommodations are protected. “Thus, requesting an unreasonable accommodation, such as one not aimed at enabling the employee to perform the essential functions of a job, would not be considered opposing a practice forbidden by” the Iowa Civil Rights Act.
Finally, the Court clarified the standard for individual liability under the Iowa Civil Rights Act. In addition to his claims against the company, the employee brought his discrimination and retaliation claims against two human resources employees involved in the termination of his employment. The HR employees argued they were not subject to such claims because they were not the employee’s supervisors.
The Court established a new standard for individual liability, holding that “an individual who is personally involved in, and has the ability to effectuate, an adverse employment action may be subject to individual liability for discrimination … or retaliation … assuming the other elements of each claim are satisfied with respect to the individual defendant.” This is a broader standard than some understood in the past, so employers should ensure that those supervisors and human resources employees falling within the standard are properly trained on their obligations under the Iowa Civil Rights Act.
For questions, contact a member of BrownWinick’s Employment & Labor practice.