Workplace Wise - Iowa Employment Law Attorneys

Tuesday, January 5, 2016

A Lump of Coal or a Surprise Christmas Gift for Employers? Iowa Supreme Court Revives Pregnancy Discrimination Lawsuit, but Notes the Iowa Civil Rights Act Does Not Impose a Duty to Accommodate Temporary Disabilities

By Amanda Jansen

In a surprising Christmas Eve decision, the Iowa Supreme Court in McQuistion v. City of Clinton tackled a pregnancy discrimination case similar to Young v. UPS decided by the U.S. Supreme Court earlier this year.  The issue before the court was whether the City violated the Iowa Civil Rights Act (ICRA) or the Iowa Constitution when it denied a pregnant firefighter, Karen McQuistion, light-duty assignments while she was pregnant.  (I focus here only on the ICRA claim, because the constitutional issues are esoteric and largely only of interest to public-sector employees.)

The City denied McQuistion’s request for light duty because the City had a policy that only authorized light duty for (1) employees injured on the job, and (2) pregnant police officers, pursuant to a collective bargaining agreement between the City and the police officers’ union (the CBA with the firefighters’ union did not contain a similar provision).  In response, McQuistion retained Roxanne Conlin and sued.

The district court agreed with the City that neither the policy, nor the City’s actions in denying McQuistion light duty, discriminated on the basis of pregnancy.  Instead, ruled Judge Henry Latham, the City merely made a distinction between (a) employees injured on the job, and (b) employees needing light duty for any other reason.  (Pregnant police officers, the district court concluded, were a completely different ballgame because they had specifically negotiated the pregnancy-light-duty provision in their CBA, whereas the firefighters had not done so.)

The Iowa Supreme Court, however, reversed the lower court’s conclusion that no pregnancy discrimination occurred.  The Court, just like the Court in Young, said that a policy that excludes pregnant employees from an employment benefit (e.g., light duty) is only prima facie evidence of unlawful discrimination—that’s only the first step in the analysis.  The employer still gets to articulate a legitimate (non-anti-pregnancy) reason for denying the benefit to pregnant employees while allowing it to other, temporarily disabled employees.  Finally, the employee has a chance to rebut the employer’s reason and show the reason is just a pretext—a smokescreen—to treat pregnant employees worse than others.  Chief Justice Cady, writing for the Court, explained that what happens at this third step in the analysis is weighing of “the burden imposed on pregnant employees by exclusion from the policy and the strength of the neutral reason for the employer to justify the exclusion of pregnant employees.”  If the employer’s reason is “weighty” enough, then excluding pregnant employees is legal.  The Supreme Court had to remand the case back to the district court to make this determination, so we will have to wait and see how the weighing process comes out. 
The really interesting part of McQuistion is the Court’s (rather gratuitous) footnote 5, which provides in pertinent part:

[I]n order to eliminate discrimination against the disabled, the law generally requires an employer to provide reasonable accommodations that permit the person to perform the essential duties of the job.  We have not extended that requirement to temporary disability cases.  The extension of a duty to reasonably accommodate to include temporary disabilities, including pregnancy, is laden with policy considerations normally reserved for the legislative branch of government.  
(Emphasis added; citations omitted.) 

Why is this interesting, you ask?  Because until now, it appeared the Court was adopting the federal Americans with Disabilities Act Amendments Act (ADAAA), into Iowa law by judicial fiat—i.e., without the Iowa General Assembly amending the ICRA like Congress amended the ADA—to broaden legal protections for individuals with physical or mental impairments, and as a result, to broaden employers’ legal obligations.  For example, in Goodpaster v. Schwan’s, a case under the ICRA, the Court significantly referenced the ADAAA in concluding the employee’s multiple sclerosis was a disability.  But in McQuistion’s footnote 5, the Court sharply diverges from one of the ADAAA’s key principles:  that a condition can be a disability even if it is temporary—even if it lasts less than six months.  That is, the Court says that its old, pre-ADAAA precedent is still controlling under the ICRA.  Specifically, Vincent v. Four M Paper Corp. stands for the proposition that no legal disability exists when a “condition, although serious, [i]s only temporary and not expected to have a long term impact on [the employee’s] work capabilities.”

Now, does this mean employees should stop providing accommodations to employees with temporary medical conditions?  NO, the rule of thumb should still be “Assume Disabled Always.”  But if you are a small employer (fewer than 20 employees) and providing accommodations is taking a toll, definitely reach out to a member of BrownWinick’s Employment and Labor Law Practice Group to discuss your options.  The McQuistion decision may offer a window of relief for small businesses managing through “worker with a health problem” issues.

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