Revolution? Will 2017 mark in history the year when sexual harassment finally became unacceptable and when the world started placing blame where it belongs?

Sexual harassment didn't start with Bill O'Reilly or Harvey Weinstein. It has been around since women entered the workplace.  For countless women, going to work has meant being targeted by their co-workers and their bosses. Being hit-on, propositioned, threatened, even sexually assaulted, has just been the price for being employed. Victims have included women who kept quiet because they needed their minimum wage jobs in order to support their families to women executives who took it because they felt their careers would be stalled if they ever spoke out. 

But has something changed in 2017? In April, Bill O'Reilly, with the best ratings in cable news, was finally fired after years of sexual harassment complaints and confidential settlements with the women who he had harassed. In August, Taylor Swift won a symbolic verdict of $1.00 against a radio host who had sexually assaulted her and then sued her because she had complained to his employer about the assault. 

Then in October, the New York Times published an article detailing years of sexual harassment and abuse by Harvey Weinstein, one of the most powerful men in Hollywood. Since then, 83 victims have surfaced to tell their horrific stories. Then in November, Matt Lauer was fired, and finally in December, Minnesota Senator Al Franken resigned his senate seat amid sexual harassment allegations.  If 2017 has shown us anything, it is that sexual harassment happens in every field of employment, at every income level, is committed by Republicans and Democrats alike and is a plague on our workforce. 

I, like the rest of the country, am wondering if we are in the middle of a revolution that will lead to real change. But I am left with another unanswered question that I have had since I first began practicing law: How did we get here?  To a place where men in power feel entitled to proposition or even touch the women they work with, and women think of these actions as another hazard of the workplace. 

If anything changes after 2017, I hope it is that more women come forward. I have represented women who have been subjected to sexual harassment, and I know with certainty that it is NOT easy to come forward. But the silence has spanned decades, and silence changes nothing. I hope that with more women coming forward it becomes easier for others to speak up. That people start to realize that blame doesn't belong with the victims. Women go to work for the very same reasons as men—to make a living, to support a family, to find a purpose, to get ahead, to change the world for the better. There is no place for this kind of conduct in our workforce. 

If you have been sexually harassed at work and would like to discuss your options, please call me at (319) 826-2250. 

Wage Theft - How your employer may be stealing from you without you even knowing.

Iowa Employment Lawyer 

A number of recent class action lawsuits brought by employees against their employers have called attention to the long-time problem of wage theft. Wage theft occurs when an employer fails to pay an employee all of the wages earned by the employee and can happen in any industry and to all types of employees. Here are a few common types of wage theft to watch out for:

  1. Working off the clock: Some employers may require employees to work before or after their scheduled hours doing things like putting on required protective gear, cleaning up or completing required paperwork, but will only pay the employee for the scheduled shift. 
  2. Failing to pay overtime: The Fair Labor Standards Act requires employers to pay non-exempt employees time and a half for hours worked over 40. Some employers will fail to pay the increased rate for overtime or may incorrectly classify employees as exempt in an attempt to avoid paying overtime. 
  3. Failing to pay for travel time: Employers are required to pay employees for certain travel time. However some employers refuse to do so. 
  4. Failing to pay for training time: Employers must pay employees while attending certain training sessions that are required by the employer. 
  5. Withholding pay: Some employers may take impermissible deductions from an employee paycheck or may withhold an employee's last check.

For Iowa workers, there are two laws aimed at protecting employees from wage theft—The Fair Labor Standards Act and The Iowa Wage Payment Collection Act. Often, claims for wage theft are filed as class action lawsuits on behalf of all employees of an employer who have been a victim of the theft. Earlier this month, the US Supreme Court heard arguments in a series of cases involving whether employers can include arbitration agreements and class action waiver in their employee agreements. The Court has not yet issued a ruling, but you can read more about the case here

If you believe your employer has committed wage theft and you would like to discuss whether you have a claim against your employer, please call our office at (319) 826-2250

The Iowa Supreme Court Holds Case Against Terry Branstad and Kim Reynolds for Violation of Constitutional Rights Can Proceed

On June 30, 2017, in a 4-3 decision, the Iowa Supreme Court issued a ruling that will help protect Iowan's Civil Rights for years to come. In the case of Godfrey v. Branstad et al, the Court held that Chris Godfrey, the former Iowa Worker's Compensation Commissioner, could continue to pursue claims against Terry Branstad, Kim Reynolds and other officials from the Branstad Administration for violating his right to Due Process guaranteed under the Iowa Constitution. 

Godfrey's case arose out of Branstad's actions in 2010 when he demanded that Godfrey resign from his position and then substantially reduced Godfrey's salary after Godfrey refused. Godfrey claims that Branstad wanted to remove him from the position for partisan and discriminatory reasons, based on Godfrey's appointment by a Democratic Governor and his sexual orientation. The position of Worker's Compensation Commissioner has typically been insulated from partisan politics. 

The Court's decision will allow Iowa Citizens to bring lawsuits against state officials when those officials violate their constitutional rights, provided that there is not already a law in place allowing the claim. The decision will protect Iowan's from abuses of power for years to come. As the Court noted in its decision, Iowa has a long history of paving the way for progress by recognizing and protecting civil rights before the US Supreme Court has acted, noting our state motto "Our Liberties We Prize and Our Rights We Will Maintaining." The full decision of the Court can be read here. 

Chris Godfrey is represented by Roxanne Conlin, a Des Moines attorney. 

At Ann Brown Legal we are committed to helping people whose civil rights have been violated. 

Equal Pay for Equal Work: How our clients' fight to be paid what they were owed helped all women in the battle to close the gender pay gap

Cedar Rapids Employment Discrimination Attorney 

It was 2011 when I first met the three women who I would end up representing for nearly six years. These women came to me after they learned that they were being paid substantially less than the men who were performing the same job at a large furniture manufacturer in Muscatine, Iowa. All three women were managers working in a male dominated workplace. They were like a lot of women I know—smart, hard-working and dedicated employees. Still, they were being paid less than men for doing the same work. 

We brought claims under the Iowa Civil Rights Act, the Equal Pay Act and Title VII. In 2015, before the trial, the case went to the Iowa Supreme Court to answer a certified question about the time period for recovering damages under the Iowa Civil Rights Act. 

We held a jury trial in Davenport, Iowa, in the summer of 2015. The jury was made up of both men and women, and the jury found in favor of our clients for all of the equal pay claims. The jury also found that the employer's conduct was willful and awarded punitive damages. Throughout discovery in the case, we learned that all of the women managers at the manufacturing plant were being paid less than men performing the same work and we were able to present that evidence to the jury. 

The employer then appealed the case to the 8th Circuit Court of Appeals. On April 3, 2017, the 8th Circuit ruled in favor of our clients. The ruling can be found here. The Court held that the employer had failed to show that economic conditions were the reason for the pay difference. The Court also held that evidence of the other women managers who were being paid less was admissible. As discussed by Bloomberg in an article discussing the ruling, the Court also held that Department of Labor audit results were not admissible. We believe these victories will help women employees in future cases to successfully prove their claims of wage discrimination.

Throughout the six years that we worked on this case, my clients stood strong in their belief that they and all women should be paid equally. They brought the same level of dedication to this case that had allowed them to advance to management in a male-dominated field. This case proves that we really can change the workplace for the better—one case at a time. 

Wrongful Death—Grieving a Loss that Never Should Have Been

Life is meant to be lived in the company of our families. The moments we spend with our parents, our children, our husbands or wives—those are the moments that make up a life well-lived. There is no greater heartbreak than the death of a loved one. It can be even harder when a death is unexpected and caused by carelessness. Words left unspoken. Plans broken. Dreams unrealized. 

During these tragic times, it seems unfair that there is often so much added responsibility to the families who have lost when grieving is already too much to bear.  We have been with families through these tough times and have found ourselves questioning how we could best help these families when at times it seems that any help we can give is not enough.   

Sheryl Sandberg, the COO of Facebook, who unexpectedly lost her husband, has recently written a much-needed book addressing many of the things that are left unsaid about tragedy and grieving. The book is called Option B: Facing Adversity, Building Resilience, and Finding Joy. Sandberg not only gives advice for those who are grieving but for those who care about someone who is grieving. There are two pieces of advice that she gives that spoke to me: 1) don't ignore the tragedy because you don't know what to say; and 2) actually do something to help, no matter how small,  instead of simply offering to do anything.

One way that we strive to help our clients is through pursuing wrongful death claims, which can be complicated and overwhelming. We help our clients in a number of ways, including:

  1. Protecting them from unwanted communication from an insurance company;
  2. Helping them to determine potential claims and how to pursue them;
  3. Helping them to navigate opening an Estate; and 
  4. Finding available community resources. 

Our goal with every client dealing with an unexpected death is to provide them with reliable counsel and advocacy so that pursuing a wrongful death claim does not become overly burdensome in an already difficult time. 

Girls Who Read Become Women Who Lead

We are pretty excited here at Ann Brown Legal to be launching our annual charitable initiative we have decided to call Girls Who Read Become Women Lead. Every year we will donate a book that we believe has an empowering message for young girls to each of the elementary schools in the Cedar Rapids Community School District to use in their library. This initiative is near and dear to the hearts of all of us at the firm because we are all avid readers. We are also committed to seeing the girls in our community reach their full potential and believe that providing access to books featuring strong female characters or strong messages for young girls is a step in the right direction.

A recent study conducted at Dartmouth College found that 57% of children's books published in the United States featured male lead characters and only 36.5% featured female lead characters. The researchers found that these disparities "contribute to a sense of unimportance among girls." But many authors and publishers are committed to changing this and Girls Who Read Become Women Who Lead is about making sure that girls in Cedar Rapids have access to these books.

Unfortunately, Cedar Rapids Public Schools are grossly underfunded, which results in limited resources available for expanding, or even maintaining, school libraries. We hope to help in some small way and potentially inspire others to do the same by donating books to school libraries in need.

This year the book we have chosen is Strong is the New Pretty: A Celebration of Girls Being Themselves, by  Kate T. Parker. The book features amazing photographs of girls playing, fighting, living and loving along with powerful messages from each girl. One message from 12-year-old Kylie is: "Some girls never lose. They only learn and come back stronger." We were inspired by the book and reminded just to be ourselves, and we hope that the girls who get to read the book feel the same. 

 

Happy reading to our future leaders!

 

Bicycle Accidents—What Every Iowa Motorist Needs to Know

Iowa bicycle accident lawyer

When I was a child, my bicycle meant freedom to me. Before we had drivers' licenses, my friends and I would ride our bikes all through our neighborhood. Now my daughter and her friends ride off on their bikes almost every night when the weather is warm(ish). I still love riding my bike as an adult—it is a great way to get outside. 

With spring finally here, bicyclists of all ages are out on the streets, and it is important for motorists to keep an eye out. Bicycle accidents can have tragic consequences, and so it is important for motorists to obey all traffic laws relating to bicycles. Most of Iowa's laws concerning bicycle-motorist safety are found in Iowa Code Chapter 321. Here are a few provisions to keep in mind:

  • Drivers are prohibited from steering unreasonably close to bicyclists, including bicyclists that are on the roadway and on the shoulder;
  • The same rules for passing vehicles apply to passing bicycles—drivers should only pass bicyclists when it is safe to change lanes; and
  • Drivers should avoid following bicyclists too closely. 

For more safe driving tips designed to keep Iowa bicyclists safe click here. 

If your child needs a bike helmet, visit Safe Kids Linn County to find out how to get a free children's bicycle helmet. Also, Ann Brown Legal is a contributor to the Hiawatha Memorial Day Bike Rodeo where they give away bike helmets to the first 50 children. 

The Water Crisis in Flint and Why We Must do More to Protect Our Children from Lead Poisoning

While many Iowan's likely have followed the story of the lead-tainted water in Flint, most people probably think that lead poisoning is an isolated problem only impacting the children of Flint. The truth, however, is that Iowa's children are lead poisoned at a higher rate than the national average and the failures in Flint, highlight a widespread problem that many people know nothing about, but that is entirely preventable. 

Flint, Michigan is a city with a population under 100,000 where over 41% live below the poverty line.  In 2015, multiple studies found that Flint's water supply was contaminated with lead as a result of various cost-saving measures previously taken by the City and that incidents of lead poisoning in Flint had increased dramatically. The investigation into the contaminated water found negligence and even criminal conduct on behalf of a number of public employees and has resulted in numerous lawsuits and prosecutions. The disaster in Flint has called attention to a nationwide health crisis—childhood lead poisoning—that is often overlooked because most of the children impacted are poor.

Lead poisoning is particularly devastating because it causes permanent brain damage in young children. It is heartbreaking that a poisoning that a child suffers at the age of one or two can impact that child for the rest of their lives. I have represented children who suffered such severe brain damage that they will never be able to live independently. Particularly scary is that children often display no visible symptoms of lead poisoning.

Unlike Flint, most Iowa children who are poisoned are exposed to lead paint and not contaminated water.  Homes built before 1950 likely contain lead-based paint. While many impoverished children live in homes built before 1950, lead poisoning is not unavoidable—it is completely preventable. Lead paint that is kept in good condition is usually not a hazard to small children, who become poisoned through paint chips and paint dust. So, who is responsible and who is failing these children? In most cases, it is negligent landlords.

While many Iowa parents do not know about lead poisoning, most Iowa landlords do. Landlords are required to provide certain information to tenants regarding the risk of lead poisoning.  Most landlords know that chipping and peeling paint causes childhood lead poisoning. Additionally, the law requires that landlords keep their properties in a safe condition, including keeping their properties free from lead hazards. Some cities, like Cedar Rapids and Waterloo, even have specific provisions in the City Code that require landlords to keep their properties lead safe. 

So why are Iowa's children still becoming lead poisoned at such a high rate? One big reason is that landlords are not doing their jobs. This failure often goes undetected because many of the families and children impacted by lead poisoning are poor. But the injustice of robbing a child of his or her potential by simply failing to keep a property in good repair is no less great for poor children. If the water crisis in Flint has taught us anything, it is that every child deserves to grow up healthy and that the adults who fail those children should be held accountable.  

The biggest tragedy to me having supervised the treatment of over 25,000 lead poisoned children is the fact that the child’s life is gone. It is wrecked forever, as early as one or two years of age and there’s no recovery.
— Dr. John Rosen

If your child has been lead poisoned and you would like more information about holding your landlord accountable, call us at (319) 826-2250.  

Wrongful Death Cases: Why women's lives should be valued equally with men's

Iowa Wrongful Death Attorney

Throughout my career, I've represented families who have lost a loved one because of the negligence of another. Whether the result of a car accident, medical malpractice or even criminal conduct, wrongful death cases are important not just to the family involved, but also as a way to make the world safer and hopefully spare another family a similar tragedy.

I've helped families where the victim was male; I've helped families where the victim was female. One disturbing truth that I've discovered is that many insurance companies—even lawyers—will place a lower value on the life of a loved one if the person lost is a woman. 

Insurance companies and defense attorneys make arguments about women's earnings and their role supporting their families, but the truth is that this belief about women's lives is archaic, insulting and ridiculous. I have refused to ever accept this logic when representing families. Children who have lost their mother, husbands who have lost their wives, parents who have lost a daughter—their tragedy should never be devalued because of outdated and simple minded arguments. All lawyers representing families who have lost a female family member should advocate for that family as strenuously as any other family and recognize and honor their loss by rejecting all claims that women's lives are somehow worth less than men's lives. 

What is a cynic? A man who knows the price of everything and the value of nothing.
— Oscar Wilde

UBER Sexual Harassment Allegations are a Wake-Up Call for the Tech Industry

The assertion by a former Uber employee that she was sexually harassed by her supervisor and then ignored by the human resources department has brought much-needed attention to a continuing problem in the tech industry - sexual harassment and sexual discrimination.

sexual harassment attorney 

On February 19, Susan Fowler, a former engineer at Uber published a blog recounting her experience at Uber, including being sexually propositioned by her boss. While this is certainly a disturbing set  of facts, perhaps more troubling is Ms. Fowler's description of what happened when she took her complaint to the human resources department. Ms. Fowler was advised that, while she clearly had been the victim of sexual harassment, her boss would only be given a warning despite multiple complaints from different women, because he was "a high performer." She was also advised that she (and not the harasser) could change jobs or alternatively that she would need to learn to deal with the harassment and the likelihood that she would be retaliated against for complaining.  

Ms. Fowler's now widely read post has resulted in numerous women working in the tech community sharing their own similar experiences. The LA Times reported that a 2015 survey had found that 60% of women in the tech industry have experienced unwanted sexual advances from a colleague and that a 2008 study found that 50% of women working in the tech industry will leave an employer at some point in their career because of a hostile work environment. 

Many tech companies hold themselves out to be very employee focused and so it is particularly disappointing that sexual harassment and sexual discrimination are pervasive among tech-based employers. Equally as disappointing is the practice of human resources departments turning a blind eye to complaints about employees if they are high performing. 

Ms. Fowler's blog has raised awareness at Uber, including prompting an independent investigation that will be conducted by former US Attorney General Eric Holder. Ms. Fowler's story also highlights why so many victims of sexual harassment remain silent. While sexual harassment is clearly illegal, some HR departments punish the victim instead of the perpetrator.

It is important for women to know that Title VII and most state civil rights acts, including the Iowa Civil Rights Act, prohibit conduct like Uber's. Complaints of sexual harassment must be adequately investigated when reported and retaliation against an employee who makes a complaint is explicitly prohibited.  Women who are being sexually harassed or who have suffered retaliation as a result of making a complaint about sexual harassment and are concerned about making a complaint should contact an employment lawyer to discuss their options.