It’s All in the Job: Iowa Supreme Court Clarifies Employee’s Burden of Proof in Disability Discrimination Actions

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The Iowa Supreme Court’s recent decision in Rumsey v. Woodgrain Millwork, Inc., et. al provides needed clarity in what the court described as the “murky” intersection between workers’ compensation and disability discrimination claims.

About the case

In Rumsey, the plaintiff had a preexisting disability, a hearing impairment, outside of his workplace injury. While rehabilitating his workplace injury, the plaintiff’s employer placed him on light-duty work. During the time plaintiff’s injury was being accommodated, the parties disagreed over the plaintiff’s alleged entitlement to a specific work restriction. Plaintiff was terminated for, according to his claims, seeking a reasonable accommodation for a disability. His employer argued the termination was the result of insubordination.

At trial, the jury found in favor of the plaintiff and awarded him $58,000 in back pay, as well as $300,000 for past and $150,000 for future emotional distress damages. On appeal, the Iowa Supreme Court reversed the district court’s denial of the employer’s motion for a directed verdict at trial, holding the employer was entitled to the dismissal of the plaintiff’s discrimination claims. The Rumsey Court then remanded the case for further proceedings on the plaintiff’s claims that the employer failed to accommodate and retaliated against him for, his request for a sign language interpreter.

In its 42-page ruling, the Iowa Supreme Court solidified that, when it comes to disability discrimination claims, the employee must demonstrate they could perform the essential functions of their job. Additionally, the court stressed that employers are not obligated to create a new job as an accommodation for a disabled employee.

Identifying an employee’s “job” and its essential functions

A key issue in Rumsey concerned what job was to be analyzed by the jury for the essential function requirement. The plaintiff argued he could perform the light-duty work he had been placed on while rehabilitating his workplace injury. His employer argued plaintiff was required to prove he could perform the essential functions of a permanent job.

To prove a disability discrimination claim under the Iowa Civil Rights Act, an employee must show that they:

  1. have a disability;
  2. are qualified to perform the essential functions of the job, with or without reasonable accommodation; and
  3. the circumstances of the termination raise an inference of illegal discrimination. In Rumsey, the employer did not dispute the plaintiff’s disability. Therefore, the court’s analysis focused on what job, if any, the plaintiff could perform.

Iowa law allows employees to identify a position they could perform and be reassigned to. The Iowa Supreme Court held that to meet the qualified person standard, an employee “must identify a specific available job [he] is qualified to perform,” to be entitled to recover on a disability discrimination claim. The employee has the burden to identify and prove they were qualified to perform an existing job in their workplace.

Iowa employers are not required to create a new job from tasks taken from other employees to accommodate a disability. If reassignment is at issue, the employee must be able to identify a currently available vacant position that they are qualified to perform. Finally, the Rumsey decision makes clear that employers have no obligation to turn a temporary light-duty position into a full-time permanent job to avoid a disability discrimination claim.

Interactive process

Employees in disability discrimination actions often rely on arguments that the employer failed to engage in an interactive process regarding accommodation before termination. The case was no different in Rumsey.

The Rumsey Court makes clear that until the employee has to prove they can perform the essential functions of a permanent, currently available position. If no reasonable accommodation is possible, the employer cannot be held liable for failing to engage in an interactive process. Employees are thus unable to save their disability discrimination claim by pushing allegations centered on the interactive process if they cannot first establish they are a qualified person.

The court’s clarifications surrounding the interactive process offer employers greater protection under the Iowa Civil Rights Act. Now, justifications as to the reasons for termination are irrelevant if the employee has failed to establish the initial burden of proving they were qualified to perform an already existing, permanent job. The act of requesting an unreasonable accommodation, such as requesting the employer to create a new job or turn a temporary position into a permanent one, is not a protected activity under Iowa law.

Individual liability under the Iowa Civil Rights Act

The plaintiff also brought his claims against two individuals, the employer’s human resources director and a production manager. These defendants argued that the Iowa Civil Rights Act should be narrowly read to create individual liability only when an individual has final decision-making authority. The court disagreed.

The Rumsey decision holds that Iowa courts should not focus on an individual’s title or the authority they have over employment decisions generally, but instead look to each individual’s “ability to effectuate the adverse employment action at issue.” Put simply, if an individual is personally involved in altering or bringing about the termination or change to the person’s employment, then they can be held individually liable under the Iowa Civil Rights Act.

The big picture

The Iowa Supreme Court’s ruling in Rumsey was based on extensive analysis of job descriptions produced by the employer during litigation. These job descriptions were crucial for the court to determine that the plaintiff was not able to perform the essential functions of the job and that no other job was available for him to be reassigned to that he could perform. Employers with outdated job descriptions, or no job descriptions of any kind, should review and update such documents regularly. Additionally, employers should provide potential and current employees these job descriptions so the essential functions of each position are not in doubt.

Employers assessing an employee’s request for accommodation are not required to create a new job that fits the employee’s needs. Nor are Iowa employers required to make a temporary light-duty position, which it may be offering an employee with temporary work restrictions, permanent as a reasonable accommodation. However, an employee can identify a vacant, permanent position as a reasonable accommodation.

Finally, despite the outcome in Rumsey, employers should continue to engage in the interactive process with employees to find a reasonable accommodation. If the employee can prove they could perform the essential functions of their job or be reassigned to a currently available vacant position already in existence, then this will become a key issue argued in a disability discrimination case.

DISCLAIMER: Because of the generality of this update, the information provided herein may not be applicable in all situations and should not be acted upon without specific legal advice based on particular situations.

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