As we have written here many times, summary judgment is an important tool for defendants in employment discrimination cases. Studies have shown that in federal court, summary judgment is granted to defendants in employment discrimination cases more than in any other type of case. These studies confirm the experience of most employment lawyers who try cases, whether they represent mostly plaintiffs or mostly defendants.
But, in state court, at least here in Iowa, courts seldom grant summary judgment in employment discrimination cases. That is the main reason employment lawsuits have migrated from federal to state court during the past decade. I have attributed the difficulty in obtaining summary judgment in state court to two factors: First, state court judges, at least in the past, have not been as familiar as federal judges with the laws and procedures governing employment discrimination. Second, summary judgment motions tend to be fact intensive and legally complex. State court judges simply do not have the resources, particularly access to law clerks, to engage in the time consuming record review and legal research and analysis that a summary judgment motion requires.
But, there is some recent anecdotal evidence that gives employers a glimmer of hope when considering whether to file for summary judgment when defending a case in state court. Since the end of September, the Iowa Court of Appeals has issued three opinions affirming district courts’ granting of employers’ motions for summary judgment in employment discrimination cases. Three cases may be a small sample of all the cases filed. Nonetheless, it is also possible these cases show state courts are getting more familiar with employment cases and perhaps are more open to summary judgment than they used to be.
The first case is Remick v. Magellan Health (Iowa Ct. App., No. 16-0954, 9/27/2017). The facts in Remick were fairly complex. The plaintiff was a social worker who suffered from depression and anxiety. She worked for the employer for several years with no issues, but then her depression flared up. The plaintiff took medical leave for several weeks to get treatment, and when she returned perceived that her colleagues were treating her differently. Plaintiff’s mental condition continued to flare up and she took intermittent FMLA for treatment. Plaintiff became concerned that her co-workers were angry that she was frequently missing work. Her supervisor told her to talk to her co-workers about her mental illness and need for ongoing intermittent leave. The supervisor put Plaintiff in a private office and brought co-workers in one or two at a time so Plaintiff could explain her situation and her need for ongoing, intermittent medical leave. At least one of Plaintiff’s colleagues became angry because of the increased workload resulting from Plaintiff’s absences. Plaintiff not surprisingly was humiliated by having to disclose her private medical information to co-workers. Plaintiff’s mental illness combined with the stress resulting from disclosing her condition workers and negative feedback received from co-workers eventually rendered her unable to perform her daily job functions. Plaintiff used up her FMLA leave and was ultimately terminated because there was no available accommodation.
The district court granted summary judgment on all three of Plaintiff’s claims: disability discrimination; retaliation; and disability based harassment. The disability discrimination claim was dismissed because Plaintiff was not qualified and there was no reasonable accommodation. Summary judgment was granted on retaliation because the alleged adverse action, transferring plaintiff to another assignment, only lasted one day and was not sufficiently adverse. The harassment claim was defeated because the employer conducted a prompt investigation and disciplined the supervisor who forced Plaintiff to tell co-workers about her mental illness.
The second and third cases involved the same plaintiff suing two different municipalities for failing to hire him as a fire fighter because he suffered from Multiple Sclerosis (MS) (Deeds v. City of Marion, Iowa Ct. App. No. 16-1666 10/11/2017; Deeds v. City of Cedar Rapids, No. 16-1779, 10/11/2017). Both cities made Plaintiff a tentative job offer conditioned on satisfactory completion of a medical screening. Each city sent Plaintiff to a different physician for the medical exam, but with the same result: both physicians opined Plaintiff was not medically capable of working as a fire fighter. Neither physician identified the precise medical condition that disqualified Plaintiff in their reports, but both cities withdrew their offers upon receipt of the medical exam results.
Plaintiff claimed both cities discriminated him on the basis of his disability. The physicians who declared him unfit to serve as a fire fighter relied upon National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) guidelines. NFPA disqualifies any person with MS who has exhibited symptoms during the past three years. Plaintiff contended that relying upon NFPA violated the Iowa Civil Rights Act because it did not allow for an individual assessment of his condition.
The cases were heard by different trial court judges, but also with the same result: summary judgment granted. Judge Doyle wrote both opinions for the Court of Appeals. He affirmed the summary judgments because neither City required the examining physicians to use the NFPA or any other guideline. They simply relied upon the examiner’s final opinion that Plaintiff was not medically cleared.
What is the takeaway from these opinions? One possible conclusion is these cases are evidence of a new trend in state court to grant summary judgment in appropriate cases. All these cases involved fairly complicated facts that would have made it easy to find a genuine dispute and deny summary judgment. As more employment cases appear on their docket, state court judges may be scrutinizing them more than in the past. Another explanation is that the medical evidence in all three cases was clear the plaintiff was not qualified to perform the job. Perhaps the more appropriate conclusion is that disability cases where the medical evidence shows the employee cannot perform the job’s essential functions are fairly compelling summary judgment candidates. Regardless of the answer, the potential for winning on summary judgment is an important question for any employer sued for discrimination. We will continue to monitor these cases to see if we can detect a real trend.