Iowa Court of Appeals Rules that ADA Amendments Apply to Iowa Civil Rights Act, Even in the Absence of Legislative Action

A divided panel of the Iowa Court of Appeals recently ruled that the rules of construction in the ADA as amended in 2008 apply to the Iowa Civil RIghts Act when determining what constitutes a disability (Knudsen v. Tiger Tots Community Child Care Center, No. 2-1011, 1/9/13). Although Knudsen is a public accommodation and not an employment case, the opinion is nonetheless very significant.   It shows at least one appellate panel’s willingness to adopt the ADA Amendments by judicial fiat. The Iowa legislature has not amended the ICRA to adopt the changes Congress made to the ADA in 2008 (effective January 1, 2009). 

The plaintiffs in Knudsen are parents of a child with a tree nut allergy. Their child was refused admission to a child care center because the center did not have sufficient staffing levels to deal with the extra care demands of a child with that kind of medical condition.  The trial court granted summary judgment to the defendants because the nut allergy was not a “disability” under the ICRA.

The court reversed the summary judgment because the trial judge had not evaluated whether an episodic condition like a tree nut allergy would substantially limit a major life activity when active.    Notably, coverage for episodic conditions has existed only since the ADAAA became effective January 1, 2009.   But the ICRA has never been amended.   In holding that the ADA amendments apply, the court relied upon several pre-2009 cases holding that a federal analytical framework applied to disability cases under the ICRA. 

Judge Vogel dissented from the majority’s decision. She argued the only reason the pre-2009 cases relied upon the federal disability framework is because of similarities between the ADA and ICRA that then existed. After the 2009 ADA amendments, however, the federal law was no longer similar in many respects.    Judge Vogel concluded that it is not the court’s role to change the definition of disability under the ICRA simply because federal law changed.   That is up to the legislature.

Fortunately, this panel’s opinion is not the end of the story.   A certified question is presently pending before the Iowa Supreme Court on this very issue.   In Stotler v. Delavan, Inc., U.S. District Judge Gritzner asked the Iowa Supreme Court to answer the following question:

In the absence of any applicable amendment to the Iowa Civil Rights Act (ICRA) regarding claims of disability discrimination, will the Iowa courts adopt the structure of the revised federal law enacted by Congress in the 2008 Americans with Disabilities Act Amendment Act (ADAAA), specifically 42 U.S.C. §§ 12101 and 12102, and federal regulations promulgated thereunder, when reviewing disability discrimination claims under the ICRA?

It would be tempting for the Iowa Supreme Court t to simply adopt the ADA Amendments (as the Court of Appeals did in Knudsen).    It would certainly make cases easier to litigate, particularly those that assert claims under both federal and state law.  Hopefully, the court will resist that temptation.   The ADA Amendment substantively changed the nature and extent of that law's coverage.  The Iowa legislature has expressed no intention to expand the scope of the ICRA in a similar manner.  

Not following the federal ADA in this case would also open the door to re-evaluting whether federal precedent should be followed in other types of discrimination claims under the ICRA..  The courts have for years ignored the real substantive differences between federal and state discrimination laws, and it is time to revisit those decisions.

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