Iowa Supreme Court Begins Expanding Iowa Civil Rights Act's Disability Protections

In an earlier blog post I discussed how protections against were strengthened by the Americans with Disabilities Act Amendments Act (ADAAA) beginning January 1, 2009. The ADAAA expanded the concept of who's considered disabled under federal disability discrimination law. But Iowa has not similarly broadened the Iowa Civil Rights Act's (ICRA) disability discrimination provisions. It's thus been an open question whether the Iowa Supreme Court would expansively interpret the ICRA disability discrimination prohibition to mirror the current state of federal law.

The Iowa Supreme Court began answering that question in an employment law decision issued on June 27, 2014, Goodpastor v. Schwan's Home Service, Inc. That appeal concerned a lawsuit for disability discrimination and wrongful termination of employment. One of the questions the court had to determine whether Goodpastor's multiple sclerosis is a disability contemplated by the Iowa Civil Rights Act.

 In resolving that issue, the court for the first time addressed the ADAAA's impact on the ICRC's definition of disability. The court began by noting that the ICRA makes it “an unfair or discriminatory practice” to discharge an employee or otherwise discriminate against an employee “because of the . . . disability of such . . . employee.” Iowa Code § 216.6(1)(a). To prevail on a wrongful termination/disability discrimination claim under the ICRA, a plaintiff must initially prove (1) that the plaintiff has a disability; (2) that the plaintiff is qualified to perform the essential functions of the job; and (3) the circumstances of the termination raise an inference of illegal discrimination. So the first issue the court confronted was whether Goodpastor had a disability.

The ICRA defines a “disability” as “the physical or mental condition of a person which constitutes a substantial disability.” That definition encompasses any person who has a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities, has a record of such an impairment, or is regarded as having such an impairment. The term “physical or mental impairment” means any physiological disorder or condition, cosmetic disfigurement, or anatomical loss affecting one more of the following body systems: neurological; musculoskeletal; special sense organs; respiratory, including speech organs; cardiovascular; reproductive; digestive; genito-urinary; hemic and lymphatic; skin; and endocrine. It also means any mental or psychological disorder, such as mental retardation, organic brain syndrome, emotional or mental illness, and specific learning disabilities. "Major life activities" are functions such as caring for one’s self, performing manual tasks, walking, seeing, hearing, speaking, breathing, learning, and working.

It was in determining whether Goodpastor's multiple sclerosis was a disability within Iowa's definition of "disabled" that the Iowa Supreme Court launched into a discussion of the ADAAA's impact on Iowa's disability discrimination law. On the one hand, the court observed that Iowa's courts are not bound to enforce federal law as that law is written. But on the other, the court also noted that it frequently looks to federal discrimination law to decide how to interpret Iowa's discrimination law. The court decided that, although it couldn't follow the letter of a federal statute in deciding what the ICRA meant, it could certainly use the spirit of that statute and other federal decisions that ascribe a broad meaning to the concept of "a person with a disability." Accordingly, the court concluded that multiple sclerosis can constitute a disability under the Iowa Act if the plaintiff produces evidence that the condition substantially impaired one or more major life activities during episodes or flare-ups, even if it did not impair life activities at all when in remission.

Harley Erbe