Articles Posted in Iowa Supreme Court

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This case involved claims brought against various state officials for damages related to public employment. Plaintiff was an Iowa Workers’ Compensation Commissioner. At issue in this interlocutory appeal were four counts alleging violation of due process and equal protection provisions of the Iowa Constitution. The district court granted summary judgment for Defendants on these claims finding that there are no private causes of action for violations of the Iowa Constitution. The Supreme Court reversed in part and affirmed in part, holding that Defendants were not entitled to summary judgment on Counts VI and VII where (1) the equal protection clause of the Iowa Constitution is self-executing; (2) classic preempt doctrine does not apply to the question of whether a Bivens-type damage remedy is available through the Iowa Constitution; and (3) the different nature of the interests protected weighs in favor of allowing a Bivens-type claim to go forward against Defendants. View "Godfrey v. State" on Justia Law

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In this employment discrimination case, prejudicial errors in four jury instructions required a new trial. Plaintiff filed claims against her former employer, alleging sexual harassment and retaliation under the Iowa Civil Rights Act (ICRA). The jury returned a verdict for Plaintiff on both counts and awarded damages in the amount of $1.4 million. Employer then filed a motion for new trial, which the district court denied. The Supreme Court reversed, holding (1) workers may bring a direct-liability negligence claim under the ICRA against an employer for supervisor harassment, but the plaintiff must prove that the employe knew or should have known of the harassment and failed to take prompt and appropriate remedial action to end it; (2) the district court did not abuse its discretion in admitting expert testimony on legal standards; but (3) the district court misinstructed the jury in four jury instructions, necessitating a new trial. View "Haskenhoff v. Homeland Energy Solutions, LLC" on Justia Law

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A civil service employee may enter into a valid last-chance agreement, which remains subject to principles of contract law, and the civil service commission need not sanction the agreement for it to be effective. A municipal firefighter pled guilty to domestic abuse assault. The municipality offered to discipline him instead of terminating his employment but required that the firefighter agree that the municipality have the discretion to terminate him immediately and without appeal if he violated the related no-contact order. The firefighter agreed to the proposal and signed a written "last-chance agreement." One year later, the firefighter violated the no-contact order, and the municipality terminated the firefighter’s employment in reliance on the agreement. The firefighter attempted to appeal, but the civil service commission declined to hear the appeal. The district court, however, concluded that the last-chance agreement was invalid because the commission had not approved or reviewed it before the parties entered into it. The Supreme Court reversed, holding that the last-chance agreement in this case was valid and enforceable. View "Whitwer v. Civil Service Commission of the City of Sioux City" on Justia Law

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A Dubuque civil rights ordinance exempts “any employer who regularly employs less than four individuals.” The former employee of Appellant, a landscaper whose hiring needs fluctuate seasonally, filed a complaint with the Dubuque Human Rights Commission (DHRC) alleging discrimination in violation of the ordinance. The DHRC found in favor of the employee. Appellant filed a petition for judicial review arguing that it did not employ the requisite number of employees to be subject to the ordinance. The district court affirmed the DHRC’s decision and upheld the damages awarded to the employee. The Supreme Court affirmed, holding (1) the DHRC correctly determined that Appellant “regularly employed” the requisite four or more individuals during its landscaping season; (2) the DHRC properly used a payroll approach and rejected Appellant’s proposed twenty-week test; and (3) substantial evidence supported the DHRC’s findings. View "Simon Seeding & Sod, Inc. v. Dubuque Human Rights Commission" on Justia Law

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Plaintiff, who was paralyzed in an accident during a work accident, filed a petition seeking a determination of permanent total disability (PTD) and also sought partial commutation of benefits in a lump sum. Defendant, the workers’ compensation insurer, disputed whether Plaintiff was PTD and resisted the commutation, although it continued to pay full weekly PTD benefits and explore settlement. The Iowa Workers’ Compensation Commissioner granted Plaintiff’s petition for partial commutation. Plaintiff then sued Defendant for first-party bad faith. On summary judgment, the district court determined that Defendant acted in bad faith. The jury awarded punitive and compensatory damages at a ratio of 88:1. The Supreme Court (1) reversed the judgments for compensatory and punitive damages, holding that, while Defendant knew or should have known it lacked any reasonable basis to dispute Plaintiff’s PTD status, the district court erred in ruling that Defendant was in bad faith as a matter of law for resisting the commutation; and (2) the district court properly denied Plaintiff an award of attorney fees incurred in prosecuting the bad-faith action. View "Thornton v. American Interstate Insurance Co." on Justia Law

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Rosalva Ochoa was terminated from her employment with JBS Swift & Company for absenteeism. Ochoa filed two workers’ compensation petitions against Swift and its workers’ compensation carrier, alleging a cumulative left groin injury and a cumulative injury to the neck and right shoulder during the course and scope of her employment. A workers’ compensation deputy commissioner ordered Swift to pay Ochoa permanent partial disability benefits and permanent total disability benefits, but the award eliminated what would otherwise amount to overlapping partial disability benefits and total disability benefits. The workers’ compensation commissioner concluded that Ochoa’s permanent partial disability payments should not have terminated as of the date when her permanent total disability payments commenced, which resulted in Ochoa receiving more than six years of overlapping weekly benefits. The district court and court of appeals affirmed. The Supreme Court affirmed, holding that Iowa workers’ compensation law does not prohibit an employee from collecting both permanent partial disability benefits and permanent total disability benefits at the same time when the employee suffers successive injuries at the same workplace. View "JBS Swift & Co. v. Ochoa" on Justia Law

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Dennis Smith, a former employee of Iowa State University (ISU), sued ISU and the State of Iowa (collectively, ISU) after his position at the university was eliminated. Smith ultimately recovered $150,000 on his statutory whistleblower claim - reduced from an initial award of $784,027 - and his other claims were dismissed. The district court awarded Smith $368,607 in attorney fees, which amounted to almost all of Smith’s attorney fees incurred in this litigation and other satellite proceedings. The district court awarded the attorneys fees pursuant to Iowa’s whistleblower statute. ISU appealed, arguing that the attorney-fee award should be reduced for work not performed on the whistleblower claim and to account for an overall lack of success on that claim. The Supreme Court reversed that aspect of the district court’s judgment awarding attorney fees to Smith, holding that, given the time Smith’s counsel devoted to unrelated matters for which attorney fees were not authorized and Smith’s limited success on the statutory whistleblower claim, the district court’s attorney fee ruling was an abuse of discretion. Remanded. View "Smith v. Iowa State Univ. of Science & Tech." on Justia Law

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In this appeal, the issue this case presented for the Iowa Supreme Court's review was whether an employer’s matching contributions to an employee’s 401k plan should be considered part of weekly earnings for purposes of calculating workers’ compensation weekly benefits. The Court had to also decide whether the district court erred in affirming the workers’ compensation commissioner’s decision on the amount of healing period benefits owed, the extent of permanent disability, and the penalty to be awarded. After review of the specific facts of this case, the Court concluded that an employer’s matching contributions to an employee’s 401k plan were not weekly earnings for purposes of calculating workers’ compensation weekly benefits. The Court also concluded the district court did not err in affirming the decision of the commissioner with respect to the extent of permanent disability. However, the district court erred in affirming the date when healing period benefits commenced, the date when the healing period benefits ended, and the date when permanent partial disability (PPD) benefits commenced. The case was remanded to the district court: (1) to affirm the commissioner’s findings as to the weekly benefit rate and the extent of permanent partial disability; and (2) for a redetermination of the date when healing period benefits commenced, of the date when healing period benefits ended and PPD benefits commenced, and for a recalculation of penalty and interest benefits. View "Evenson v. Winnebago Insudtries, Inc." on Justia Law

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Sondra Irving was employed as a medical assistant at the University of Iowa Hospitals and Clinics (UIHC). She was arrested on November 28, 2013, and incarcerated through December 24, but the charges were ultimately dismissed. Irving was scheduled to resume work on December 3. At Irving’s request, her mother called UIHC every work day between December 2 and December 11 to report that Irving would be absent from work. On December 11, an employee at UIHC told Irving’s mother that she did not need to call anymore because Irving had been placed on a leave of absence. Irving’s supervisors at UIHC visited her on December 5 and told her they were doing everything they could to make sure she did not lose her job. Irving’s supervisors continued to visit on visiting days, and they told her that she had been placed on a leave of absence. After she was released, Irving attempted to return to work and was told that she was no longer employed. Irving attempted to reapply for her job and was rejected. Irving applied for unemployment insurance benefits on January 16, 2014, under the Iowa Employment Security Law. Iowa Workforce Development denied her application in a letter stating, “Our records indicate you voluntarily quit work on 12/20/13, because you were arrested and confined in jail. Your quitting was not caused by your employer.” Irving appealed the decision. The district court affirmed. Irving then sought certiorari review. The Supreme Court found that the EAB record did not support a finding of misconduct, and that there was no substantial support to show that Irving's absence from the workplace due to her incarceration was a voluntary quit. Accordingly, the Iowa Supreme Court reversed the EAB's decision and remanded for further proceedings. View "Irving v. Employment Appeal Board" on Justia Law

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Employee injured her back during the course of her employment. Employer paid for the cost of care Employee received to treat her injury through September 2009. Employee later brought a workers’ compensation claim seeking workers’ compensation benefits and medical expenses she incurred for additional back treatment between May 2010 and April 2011. The Workers’ Compensation Commissioner concluded that the treatment Employee received between May 2010 and April 2011 was not causally related to her workplace injury but nonetheless awarded Employee medical expenses because Employer failed to notify Employee it was no longer authorizing treatment as required by Iowa Code 85.27(4). The district court reversed in part, concluding that the agency misinterpreted section 85.27(4) and that Employer was not liable for the expenses Employee incurred after September 2009. The court of appeals reversed the portion of the district court judgment reversing the agency’s determination that Employer was liable to Employee for the expenses she incurred from May 2010 through April 2011, concluding that the district court erroneously interpreted section 85.27(4). The Supreme Court affirmed in part and vacated in part the decision of the court of appeals, holding that the Commissioner erroneously interpreted Iowa Code 85.27(4). Remanded. View "Ramirez-Trujillo v. Quality Egg, LLC" on Justia Law