Iowa Supreme Court Clarifies Iowa's Wrongful Termination Law

Yesterday the Iowa Supreme Court issued an important decision for our work as Des Moines wrongful termination lawyers. Although Iowa's recognized wrongful termination as a legitimate employment law claim for over two decades, since 2000 there's been confusion over exactly what employees need to prove in order to win a wrongful termination claim. Now we have our answer.

Today's case is Terri Rivera v. Woodward Resource Center. Terri Rivera sued Woodward Resource Center for wrongful termination. She claimed that she was fired for reporting incidents of abuse at Woodward Resource Center. Woodward Resource Center contended that it terminated Rivera because she accrued three unscheduled absences. The jury agreed with Woodward and reached a defense verdict.

On appeal to the Iowa Supreme Court the fighting issue concerned the elements that a wrongful termination plaintiff has to prove to succeed. The confusion arose because of an offhand comment that the Iowa Supreme Court made in a 2000 wrongful termination case. Before 2000, it was clear that wrongful termination plaintiffs had to prove three things to win: (1) engagement in a protected activity; (2) adverse employment action; and (3) a causal connection between the two. But in a 2000 decision the Iowa Supreme Court also suggested that wrongful termination plaintiffs must also establish a fourth element, that the employer lacked an overriding business justification for the termination. 

For over a decade after the offhand comment in the 2000 case the comment provided little trouble for the courts. But beginning a few years ago courts began to wrestle with the question of whether the "overriding business justification" element was a separate part of the case or was subsumed within the "causal connection" requirement. In Rivera the Iowa Supreme Court answered that question stating "[w]e thus regard this case as an opportunity to clarify the elements of a wrongful-discharge-in-violation-of-public-policy claim, the allocation of the burden of proof, and the role of legitimate business reasons or justifications in the claim."

The court noted that in order to prevail on a wrongful discharge claim in violation of public policy, the plaintiff must show the protected conduct was the determining factor in the adverse employment action. That's part of the "causal connection" element. A determining factor is one that tips the balance in an employment decision. In order to be the determining factor, it is not necessary the protected conduct be “the main reason behind the decision,” but it must be the factor that makes the difference in the employment outcome.

The court then answered the question about overriding business justifications: "[W]e conclude the lack of legitimate business justification is not an element of the claim that the plaintiff must prove. Because under our cases plaintiffs must prove that the protected conduct was the determining factor, Iowa law does not impose liability on an employer when the determining factor was a legitimate business reason and unlawful retaliation was simply a motivating factor." Instead, an employer's alleged overriding business justification is considered as part of the causation/determining factor element.

In the end, the court's clarification was not enough to save Rivera's case. In a series of acrobatic moves worthy of a Cirque du Soleil performer, the court ruled that the jury instructions did not confuse or mislead the jury even though the court also decided that the jury instructions misstated the law. Rivera was thus not entitled to a new trial. 

Jury instructions are meant to explain the law in plain, simple terms to the juries who decide cases. I cannot understand how jury instructions that misstate the law can adequately serve that purpose. I agree with the two justices who dissented in Rivera. Once the court determined that the trial judge had misstated the law to the jury, it should also have granted Rivera a new trial so that she could have her day in court with a jury that was properly educated on the applicable law.

Please feel free to contact us if you need the assistance of a Des Moines employment lawyer.

Harley Erbe