Iowa Court of Appeals Refuses to Extend Iowa's Retaliatory Discharge Doctrine

Iowa Employment & Labor Law Dickinson Law Firm Des Moines Iowa

Posted on 04/19/2010 at 09:37 AM by The Newsroom

Facts. In Huffman v. AADG, Inc., 2010 WL 624855 (Iowa App. 2/24/2010), the Court of Appeals delivered a blow to employees and a shot in the arm to employers, refusing to expand the right to bring  workers compensation retaliation claims when the employee has suffered an adverse employment action short of discharge. In this case, Huffman began working for AADG straight out of high school, in June of 2004, in AADG's door manufacturing factory.  In December of 2004 Huffman sustained a back injury while on the job and received workers' compensation benefits.  After back surgery, Huffman returned to work with restrictions, performing light duty jobs or jobs where he had an extra helper. Huffman eventually moved into a job performing grinding on doors.  In the course of this job, Huffman suffered a wrist injury in 2007. 

Huffman had wrist surgery and again received temporary disability benefits but could no longer perform the essential functions of the grinding position. At all times, Huffman remained employed by AADG.  For a considerable period of time, however, he did not actually go to work at AADG, but instead received temporary total disability workers' compensation benefits.  Huffman could not perform any of his former jobs and could only perform light duty.  Huffman admitted there was no specific full-time job available that he could perform during his period of recovery.  He instead wanted AADG to essentially create a new job and find enough light duty work to provide him with full-time work in lieu of temporary disability benefits. Court of Appeals Reasoning. The Iowa Court of Appeals began its discussion by stating the established law in Iowa that a worker who is discharged in retaliation for filing a workers' compensation claim has a judicial remedy. The Court assumed for purposes of this case only that such claims include constructive discharge scenarios (when the employer makes an employee's working conditions so intolerable that the employee is forced into involuntary resignation). 

The court found that Huffman's claim failed because no reasonable fact-finder could conclude that Huffman was constructively discharged.  Huffman never resigned, and in fact continued to work for AADG. Next, the Court discussed Huffman's argument that the court should extend a judicial remedy to employees who are demoted for filing a workers' compensation claim, as courts in Kansas and Nebraska have recognized.  The Court of Appeals declined to decide this issue, concluding that Huffman had not been demoted. Huffman next argued that AADG should have found enough light duty tasks for him to do so he could come off temporary disability. 

The Court of Appeals rejected this argument, reasoning that Huffman's proposed claim for failure to take an employee off temporary disability would improperly intrude upon the statutory workers' compensation system, essentially re-writing Iowa workers' compensation laws to require the employer to put the injured employee to work as soon as possible at any job or combination of jobs it can possibly devise.  The Court rejected this argument, reasoning it would undermine the workers' compensation system by subjecting employers to inconsistent obligations:  current law requires employers to pay temporary disability benefits under the workers compensation act;  Huffman's position would require the same employer to assign the maximum possible work to that employee or face liability for retaliation. Finally, the Court rejected Huffman's claim of harassment, finding it was squarely foreclosed by Below v. Skarr, 569 N.W.2d 510, 512 (Iowa 1997), which held that an employee did not have a cause of action against an employer for interfering with his rights to file a workers' compensation claim by threatening termination and harassment short of discharge. 

The court also found relatively little evidence of harassment by AADG. Bottom Line for Iowa Employers. By refusing to extend Iowa's retaliatory discharge doctrine, this decision is a victory for employers and a defeat for employees.  In contrast to the Iowa Supreme Court's expansion of the doctrine in 2009 in Jasper v. Nizum (note that the same attorneys represented the plaintiffs in both cases) by holding that regulations can serve as a source of public policy as the basis for wrongful discharge claims, this decision stays in keeping with Iowa courts’ reluctance to expand our state's very narrow cause of action for retaliatory discharge.  

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