Iowa Supreme Court Says That Iowa's Disability Discrimination Law Does Not Require Employers To Be "Mind Readers"

Earlier this year, the Iowa Supreme Court confirmed what we've long expected, which is that an employer can't be held liable for discriminating against someone based on a disability that the employer didn't know about. That's the first line of defense that we sometimes encounter in our disability discrimination cases -- That the employer had no idea that the employee had the claimed disability until we brought the disability discrimination claim and therefore the employer's innocent. The Iowa Supreme Court gave a detailed analysis of this issue in Nolan Deeds v. City of Marion.

Nolan Deeds, who has multiple sclerosis, applied for a full-time job as a City of Marion firefighter. The city declined to hire him after the physician performing its preemployment physical examination reported that Deeds was not medically qualified for the position. The physician made that determination based on national firefighter guidelines that disqualify persons with MS with active symptoms within three years because MS symptoms could hinder job performance and thereby endanger rescuers and persons needing assistance in a fire emergency.

The physician did not inform the city that MS was the reason the applicant was found unfit for firefighting. The city did not inquire further into why Deeds was disqualified. Deeds did not inform the City he had MS or ask for any accommodation. Deeds later sued the city for disability discrimination.

The issue on appeal was whether, because the city was unaware of the Deeds’s MS, Deeds could prove that the city declined to hire him because of that disability. The Iowa Supreme Court ruled that Deeds could not prove his claim. It said that employers aren't required to be "mind readers." The city had no duty to second-guess the physician’s opinion that Deeds was medically unqualified for the position.

Deeds argued that the city was required to look behind the medical opinion of the evaluating physician even though Deeds didn't tell the city that he had MS. But the court concluded that employers generally are entitled to rely on a physician’s opinion that the employee or prospective employee is medically unqualified for the job. The burden was on Deeds to request an accommodation, not on the city to inquire further about Deeds’s disqualification. The court said that Deeds breached his duty to inform his prospective municipal employers of his MS and kept his disability a secret.

The court concluded that the city did not have a legal duty to investigate after receiving the medical opinion that Deeds was not qualified for the position, when Deeds himself remained silent regarding his medical disqualification and requested no accommodation. The burden was on Deeds to give the city notice of his disability. Deeds knew that his MS was the physician’s reason for his disqualification.

The lesson from Deeds is that Iowa's disability discrimination law is not a self-executing statute. Employees have affirmative obligations to take steps to trigger their protection against disability discrimination under that law. One of those obligations is that employees must ensure that their employer's aware of their disability if they wish the employer to consider some sort of reasonable disability accommodation. Deeds makes clear that employers can't be sued for disability discrimination based on a disability that they weren't aware of.

Harley Erbe