Defendant did not violate the Iowa Civil Rights Act for discrimination it was unaware of, Iowa Supreme Court rules

By: Rox Laird on June 29th, 2018

An applicant for a firefighter position is rejected after the employer’s consulting physician concludes the applicant is medically unqualified without disclosing the reason: The applicant had recently had symptoms of multiple sclerosis (MS).

Did the employer violate the disability discrimination provision of the Iowa Civil Rights Act?

Not according to the Iowa Supreme Court in a ruling handed down June 22. The Court, in a 4-2 decision in Deeds v. City of Marion, held that since the city was not aware of Nolan Deeds’ MS diagnosis, it did not violate his rights under the Iowa Civil Rights Act.

“The City is not required to be a mind reader,” Justice Thomas Waterman wrote for the Court. The majority opinion was joined by Chief Justice Mark Cady and Justices Edward Mansfield and Bruce Zager. Justices Brent Appel and David Wiggins dissented. Justice Daryl Hecht did not participate in the case.

The Court also issued a second, one-paragraph, opinion, Deeds v. City of Cedar Rapids, which announced the same decision with the same lineup of justices. Nolan Deeds sued both cities individually after his applications were rejected by both cities for the same reasons.

In the Marion case, the physician, who was employed by UnityPoint clinic, learned of Deeds’ MS diagnosis but did not disclose it to the city, and the city did not inquire as to why the physician said he was medically unqualified.

Thus, the Court held, that meant the city did not violate the Iowa Civil Rights Act, which defines unfair discrimination as “refusing to hire” an applicant “because of” a disability.

“When the City rescinded its job offer to Deeds, the City did not know he had MS,” Waterman wrote. “The City only knew that the physician reported Deeds was not medically qualified for the firefighter position.” Thus, he added, “We conclude that Deeds cannot show the City discriminated against him ‘because of’ his disability.”

The City of Marion had no duty to inquire as to why Deeds was deemed medically unqualified, the Court said, but Deeds did have a duty to request an accommodation for his disability. It cited a ruling from the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit saying that, otherwise, a disabled employee might keep the disability a secret and later sue for failure to accommodate.

The Court also rejected Deeds’ argument that the UnityPoint physician who conducted the pre-employment physical acted as an agent for the City and, as such, the City had knowledge of his disability. Rather, the Court said, the physician acted as an independent contractor hired by the City and she exercised independent judgment.

Writing in dissent, Justice Appel said a “flat-out” ban on anyone with recent MS symptoms as opposed to an individualized medical assessment “is precisely the kind of stereotyping that the disability-discrimination provisions of the Iowa Civil Rights Act (ICRA) are designed to prevent.”

In this case, the City of Marion avoided the Civil Rights Act with a “don’t ask, don’t tell” approach by contracting out the physical examination to a third party and then not following up with the physician to find out why an applicant is deemed medically unqualified for a job.

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On Brief is devoted to appellate litigation, with a focus on the Iowa Supreme Court, the Iowa Court of Appeals, and the United States Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit.
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