Iowa Supreme Court Clears Up Standards for Employment Discrimination Under Iowa Civil Rights Act

Employment Discrimination Lawyer

On June 9, 2019, the Iowa Supreme Court issued an anticipated ruling in the case of Hawkins v. Grinnell Regional Medical Center. For you legal junkies, you can read the opinion here. Gregory Hawkins, who was represented by my friend and fierce advocate for employees, Brooke Timmer, sued his former employer, Grinnell Regional Medical Center, after he was fired following years of dedicated service. Hawkins claimed he was a victim of disability discrimination and retaliation and a jury agreed, awarding Hawkins over $4 million in damages.

Many issues were presented on appeal, but the Iowa Supreme Court focused on just two. Unfortunately, the Court overturned the verdict and sent the case back for a new trial because of certain evidence that was admitted at trial. But in addition to that, the Court addressed the standards of proof that apply in most cases of employment discrimination.

The Court confirmed its long standing, but often challenged, holding that an employee can prove an employer violated the Iowa Civil Rights Act by showing that a discriminatory or retaliatory motive was a motivating factor or played a part in the employer’s action taken against the employee. Discrimination does not need to be the only reason for the employer’s action for it to violate the ICRA, it just needs to be one of the reasons. This reasoning has always made perfect sense to me because I think it is pretty clear that the legislature intended to prohibit racism, sexism, retaliation, etc. in its entirety and did not intend to allow employers to be just a little racist or a little sexist.

The Court also eliminated the application of the federal rules for proving that an employer discriminated against an employee, which were often confusing for juries . . . and judges and attorneys. Finally, the Court announced that employers are entitled to a “same decision” defense. This means that if an employee proves that discrimination or retaliation was a motivating factor or played a part in the employer’s decision, the employer is liable under the ICRA unless the employer proves that it would have made the same decision even without the discriminatory or retaliatory motive.

As an employment discrimination lawyer, I am looking forward to advocating for my clients under these clearer standards.

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. 

Equal Pay for Equal Work - What Every Working Woman Needs to Know

Women employee's contribution to the workplace is "immeasurable" as Forbes recently reported. "Women learn to do more with less, they are resourceful, and develop a unique political awareness." Despite the significant value that women workers bring to the workforce, in 2015 the AAUW reported that women were still only making 80% of what their male co-workers were making for the same job! At the current rate of improvement, women are not expected to reach pay equity until 2059. My daughter will be nearing retirement age by then!  The gender pay gap raises great concern among working women, but there are a few key things that as an employment lawyer, I believe every working woman should know. 

  1. Equal pay for equal work is the law. The federal Equal Pay Act, Title VII and Iowa's Equal Pay Act require that employers pay men and women equally if they perform substantially similar work. The work does not have to be identical and it does not matter if the employees have different job titles as long as the work is substantially similar. 

  2. All claims for discriminatory pay have a time limit to file a claim. The Iowa Equal Pay Act and Title VII require employees to file a complaint with the EEOC or Iowa Civil Rights Commission within 300 days of receiving the last discriminatory paycheck. The Equal Pay Act has a 2 or 3 year statute of limitations and does not require a filing with the EEOC, but has limits on the amount of damages recoverable. If you think you may have a claim and are concerned about these time limits, you should speak with an employment lawyer. 

  3. It's against the law for your employer to fire you for making a claim of discriminatory pay. Title VII, The Iowa Civil Rights Act and the EPA all prohibit retaliation by an employer for making a complaint of discrimination. Retaliation includes not only firing but other actions by an employer that negatively impact your employment. 

  4. Executives and women in leadership roles are more likely to be paid less than men in the same roles. You may assume that because you have advanced to a leadership role in your organization that you are not being paid unfairly, but the opposite is true. The Harvard Business Review reported that the pay gap widens for executive women, women with children and women with advanced degrees. 

  5. You can help close the pay gap for yourself and others. I believe that the most effective way for women to address the gender pay gap is to do everything in their power to make sure they are being paid equally as their male co-workers. If you know that you are not being paid fairly or suspect that is true you should raise the issue with your employer. If you continue to be paid unfairly or have left an employer where you were paid unfairly, you should talk with a lawyer and consider bringing a claim against your employer. Equal pay claims have different legal standards from other types of discrimination that can make it easier to prove claims based on unequal pay. 

Women employees know they are just as valuable to their employers as their male co-workers. They deserve to be paid the same. It is not only what is fair, but it is the law. 

Imagine you’re a little girl. You’re growing up. You practice as hard as you can, with girls, with boys. You have a dream. You fight, you work, you sacrifice to get to this stage. You work as hard as anyone you know. And then you get to this stage, and you’re told you’re not the same as a boy. Almost as good, but not quite the same. Think how devastating and demoralizing that could be.
— Venus Williams

The information on this page is intended to be helpful but should not replace formal legal advice. If you would like to speak with an Iowa employment lawyer about a potential claim for discriminatory pay, please call us at (319) 826-2250.