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.

How The #MeToo Movement Reinforces The Importance of Civil Justice for Victims of Sexual Assault and Harassment at Work

Image from CNN.com

Image from CNN.com

On November 27, 2018, more than 20 million people watched the testimony of Dr. Christine Blasey-Ford and Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh. Dr. Blasey-Ford offered compelling and emotional testimony detailing a sexual assault she suffered at the hands of Brett Kavanaugh when the two were in high school. The nation has watched wondering whether a man accused of sexual assault will be put in one of the most powerful positions in the country.

The Nation has also watched as Dr. Blasey-Ford, who courageously came forward with her story, has been challenged, disbelieved and even mocked. But Dr. Blasey-Ford has also inspired many victims to come forward with their stories and has brought much needed attention to the treatment of victims of sexual assault and harassment. For too long, victims are subjected to ridicule instead of respect when they come forward, while perpetrators have suffered little to no consequences. Rape is the most under reported crime in this country, with 63% of sexual assaults going unreported. The #MeToo movement has brought much needed attention to sexual assault and harassment but it remains to be seen if it will lead to lasting change.

Sexual assault and harassment in the workplace are often about power and for that reason, sexual harassment lawyers know that too often these acts go unreported. One in five women will be raped in their lifetime and 8 percent of those rapes will occur at work. And while there are a long list of reasons that prevent victims from coming forward, the law protects victims of sexual harassment and assault in the workplace. Both the Iowa Civil Rights Act and Title VII (the Federal Civil Rights Act) have anti-retaliation provisions that make it illegal to retaliate against employees who make complaints about sexual harassment and sexual assault. An employer cannot demote (or refuse to promote), fire or reduce the pay or responsibilities of an employee because the employee complained about sexual harassment and assault.

In addition to the employment laws already in place that protect victims who report, both the Senate and the House have proposed legislation aimed at further combating workplace sexual harassment and assault. The Empower Act, H.R. 6406, is described as an Act “to deter, prevent, reduce, and respond to harassment in the workplace, including sexual harassment, sexual assault, and harassment.” The Act is sponsored in the Senate and in the house by both Republican and Democratic women legislators. If passed, the Empower Act would prohibit employers from requiring employees to sign non-disparagement or confidentiality agreements as a condition of employment if the agreement would prohibit employees from discussing sexual harassment or assault.

While retaliation has long been illegal, and nearly every employer knows they are not permitted to retaliate, as a sexual harassment attorney, I have represented many clients who have been retaliated against. We have learned from cases like those involving Roger Ailes and Harvey Weinstein that widespread sexual harassment and assault can go unreported for YEARS because of fear of retaliation.  If you or someone you know has been retaliated against by your employer for reporting sexual harassment or assault or if you are afraid to report sexual harassment or assault in your workplace, you should speak with a sexual harassment attorney.

As a sexual harassment attorney, I find that one of the most powerful things I can do is believe in our clients. We believe victims. Oftentimes in these cases, we will do what an employer failed to do and investigate and substantiate the stories of victims of sexual harassment and assault. This allows us to be their best advocate.

If you have been sexually assaulted or harassed at work or are currently being sexually harassed or assaulted and would like to discuss your options, please call us at (319) 826-2250.

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.