Iowa Supreme Court Clarifies State Pregnancy Discrimination Law

On December 23, 2015 the Iowa Supreme Court issued an important employment discrimination decision in Karen McQuistion v. City of Clinton that clarifies Iowa's pregnancy discrimination law as it relates to pregnancy-related physical disabilities

The issue was whether an employer discriminates under the Iowa Civil Rights Act and the Iowa Constitution by refusing to accommodate a pregnant employee with light duties when requested due to her pregnancy. Karen McQuistion is employed as an engineer and paramedic for the City of Clinton fire department. In May 2011, McQuistion informed Fire Chief Mark Regenwether she was pregnant. McQuistion was in the early stages of pregnancy at the time. She requested light-duty assignments for the duration of her pregnancy. The requested accommodation was based solely on her pregnancy and the nature of her job and not on any underlying pregnancy-related medical condition amounting to disability. Fire Chief Regenwether denied McQuistion’s request for a light-duty assignment. He determined she was not entitled to light duty under the city administrative policy because she did not have a disabling injury that occurred on the job.

McQuistion brought a lawsuit against the City of Clinton and the individuals who participated in the decision to deny her light duty (collectively referred to as the City). She alleged, among other claims, pregnancy discrimination under Iowa Code 216.6(2). The Iowa Civil Rights Act makes it an unfair or discriminatory practice for any person to discriminate in employment against an employee based on various classifications, including the “sex . . . or disability of such . . . employee.” Iowa Code § 216.6(1)(a) (2011). Although the Iowa Civil Rights Act doesn't specifically mention pregnancy, the Iowa Supreme Court has held that pregnancy constituted a temporary disability and concluded an employment policy that failed to treat pregnant employees in the same manner as disabled employees regarding the imposition and use of leave constituted sex discrimination. Therefore, under the Iowa Civil Rights Act, terms and conditions under an employment disability policy must apply to pregnant employees the same as they apply to all other employees. Those legal decisions later officially became part of the Iowa Civil Rights Act.

McQuistion specifically asserted that the Iowa Civil Rights Act mandated that any employment policy maintained by an employer in Iowa that allows light duty for any disabled employees must also unconditionally apply to pregnant employees. Consequently, she claimed an employer discriminates against pregnant employees by failing to include them unconditionally in a disability policy applicable to any disabled employees. Since the City in this case did maintain a policy that permitted light-duty assignments for employees who were injured on the job and for pregnant police officers, McQuistion asserts that the statute mandates the same accommodation be available to all other pregnant employees. But the court had a different analysis. This Iowa Civil Rights Act does not specifically cover the situation in this case in which the terms and conditions for light duty applicable to all temporarily disabled employees result in the exclusion of all disabled employees who did not become disabled through a work-related injury, including employees disabled because of pregnancy or related conditions. Instead, the question of whether a particular term or condition applicable to all disabilities serves to discriminate against disabilities due to pregnancy is to be decided under a different analysis.

The court thus rejected the argument by McQuistion that the legislature established as facially discriminatory any exclusion of a pregnant employee from any policy or plan that provides benefits for any other temporary disability. Instead, the legislature only established that the exclusion of pregnant employees and applicants by an employment policy or practice because of their pregnancies constituted prima facie evidence of discrimination. Upon such proof by the employee, the employer may then come forward with a legitimate, nondiscriminatory reason for the exclusion that the claimant can rebut with evidence that the proffered reasons are pretextual. Employment policies and practices that do not expressly target pregnant employees or applicants may still result in pregnancy discrimination.

This case just leaves two types of pregnancy discrimination under state law. First, if a policy might also apply to pregnant employees, the employer cannot specifically exclude pregnant employees from that policy. But that wasn't the case in McQuistion because the employer's policy excluded anyone whose disability occurred because of events outside the job, like a pregnancy. Therefore that employer treated pregnant employees no differently than any other employee who was injured outside the job. That leaves a pregnant employee in that situation a second possibility, which is to argue that an otherwise neutral policy is being intentionally applied against pregnant employees in a discriminatory manner.

Harley Erbe