Employment Law Round-Up

A lot has happened in the employment law world in the last few weeks.  Here's a short round-up of some noteworthy items:

The Iowa Supreme Court held that punitive damages are not permitted in claims under the Iowa Civil Rights Act.  The decision is not revolutionary and only confirms what the Court has said since the mid-1980s.  It will take legislative action for punitive damages to become available under the ICRA.

The Iowa Supreme Court withdrew its December 2012 opinion in Nelson v. James H. Knight, DDS, P.C. for the purpose of issuing a new decision.  You might recall that this case garnered national attention around the holiday season.  The employer, dentist, fired his dental hygienist because he was attracted to her and his wife was jealous.  The Supreme Court did not find this to be discrimination.  We will stay tuned to see if their decision has changed under the spot-light.

The United States Supreme Court struck down Federal DOMA.  DOMA defined "marriage" for the purpose of many federal laws, including ERISA, as limited to a union between a man and a woman.  Because Iowa permits same-sex marriage, changes will be seen with respect to ERISA plans.

 The United States Supreme Court issued two decisions regarding Title VII.  I wrote about Vance v. Ball State University previously.  In University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center v. Nassar, the Court determined that a plaintiff claiming an employer retaliated against him or her must meet a higher standard of proof than a typical discrimination case.  A typical discrimination case only requires the plaintiff to prove that the impermissible factor (race, religion etc.) was a motivation factor.  According to the Nassar opinion, the plaintiff must show that but for the illegal act the injury would not have occurred.  Stated another way, the adverse action occurred only because the employer unlawfully retaliated against plaintiff.

The EEOC has settled a number of claims around the country, including Iowa.    The EEOC alleged that a meatpacking warehouse in Mason City permitted  racially charged graffiti remained on the wall of the men's restroom for months after the company was alerted to the problem.  The company will pay $15,000 to three employees and paint the restroom with graffiti-resistant paint among other remedies.  The EEOC also settled a claim against a law firm in Washington D.C. that rescinded a job offer to a pregnant employee just two hours after she informed them that she was pregnant.  (There's nothing related to Iowa in that post, but I always find it interesting when lawyers make silly mistakes).

U.S. Supreme Court Narrowly Defines Supervisor

On Monday, the Supreme Court issued its decision in Vance v.  Ball State University.  The issue decided was which employees constitute "supervisors" for the purpose of applying Title VII anti-discrimination laws.  I previously discussed the importance of this question.  

In a 5-4 decision, the Court decided that an individual is a supervisor only if he or she is empowered by the employer to take tangible employment actions.  The court defines "tangible employment action" as the ability "to effect a significant change in employment status, such as hiring, firing, failing to promote, reassignment with significantly different responsibilities or a decision cause a significant change in benefits."  Individuals without such authority are not supervisors.

The Court provides a variety of reasons to support its determination, including its easy application and congruence with the reality of the workplace.

The Court's decision does not shift the legal framework present in the 8th Circuit as the definition adopted by the Supreme Court is the one that has historically been applied.  This is good news for employers in Iowa.  

Iowa Supreme Court on Defamation

In a lengthy opinion released today, the Iowa Supreme Court tackled the intricate legal issue of defamation in Iowa.  In Gail Bierman and Beth Weier vs. Scott Weier and Author Solutions, Inc., the Court analyzed the history of Iowa and Federal defamation law.  Generally, the tort of defamation requires publication (spoken is slander, printed is libel) of a defamatory statement which was false and malicious, made of and concerning the plaintiff, which causes injury.  The Weier opinion analyzes the level of proof required in certain scenarios, including who made the statement and the content of the statement.  The Court also reiterated that plaintiffs must show more evidence to prove defamation if the actor is determined to be a "media defendant," rather than a private person, although Justices Hecht and Appel disagreed with this distinction.

So, if you have a free hour and a strong desire to understand Iowa defamation law (particularly libel), click on the link above and enjoy 68 pages of fun.