The Iowa Supreme Court wrapped up its latest adjudicative term on June 28, 2019, having submitted 113 cases. More remarkable for the changes it witnessed than for its labor and employment decisions, the term began with the Court’s first new Justice since 2011. By term’s end another had been appointed. The Court that completed this term resembled little the one that completed its last—whether measured by gender, race and ethnicity, or, as Part II will discuss, philosophy.
In September, Judge Susan Christensen was appointed to a seated vacated by Justice Bruce Zager’s retirement. She became the first woman to don a Justice’s robe since 2010. In December, Justice Daryl Hecht, battling cancer, resigned. Four months later, at age 66, he died. To fill his seat, the governor appointed Judge Christopher McDonald, who became the first Justice of color since the Court’s creation in 1838.
But the Court’s business is of course opinions, and they kept coming all the while. Of the 113 cases submitted, eight decisions have direct implications for labor and employment law. Just two of these decisions arose from alleged employment discrimination, a typically fertile source of judicial opinions. Five stemmed from public-employee labor law. All eight are summarized chronologically below.
In Slaughter v. Des Moines University College of Osteopathic Medicine (No. 17-1732), issued in April, a psychologist, a university employee, treated the plaintiff, a student, for depression. When the plaintiff later sued the school for disability discrimination, she invoked Iowa’s general rule attributing an employee’s knowledge to her employer. But Iowa and federal law generally forbid healthcare providers to disclose patient information. And so the Court held as a first-impression matter that the psychologist’s knowledge of the plaintiff’s disability couldn’t be imputed to the university. Although this wasn’t technically an employment case, the Court’s holding has obvious implications for employment-disability cases.
A single Friday in May saw the Court issue five opinions in labor-union cases, three stemming directly from 2017 amendments to the Iowa Public Employee Relations Act. In Iowa State Education Association v. State (No. 17-1834), the Court held that an amendment eliminating payroll deductions for union dues—the dues checkoff—didn’t violate Iowa’s equal protection guarantee. Nor did another amendment to the statute violate equal protection as unlawfully over- and underinclusive, held AFSCME Iowa Council 61 v. State (No. 17-1841). This amendment restricted the mandatory subjects of collective bargaining under PERA for bargaining units consisting of less than thirty percent “public safety employees,” a category covering first responders (in very rough terms; thus the asserted underinclusivity). The last of the PERA-amendments trilogy, United Electrical, Radio & Machine Workers of America v. Iowa Public Employment Relations Board, interpreted “base wages” in the amendments to mean bottom, lowest, or minimum wage for employees in a job classification. The Court also interpreted “past collective bargaining agreements” to mean agreements predating the parties’ current, expiring agreement.
In UE Local 893/IUP v. State (No. 17-2093), the Court unanimously upheld a trial court ruling that union negotiators had accepted the State’s offer, resulting in an enforceable collective bargaining agreement. In SEIU, Local 199 v. Iowa Board of Regents (18-0018), the Court approved a regulation requiring the Board to meet and vote to accept an agreement before a collective bargaining agreement takes effect, dooming the collective bargaining agreement.
In June, Patrick Smith incisively covered the Court’s opinion in Hawkins v. Grinnell Regional Medical Center (No. 17-1892). The Court nixed a $4.5 million jury verdict and ordered a new trial. But it sidestepped two important issues: whether the $4.28 million emotional-distress award was excessive and whether plaintiff’s counsel had improperly used a so-called “golden rule” argument in closing, which may have provoked jurors to award damages based not on the evidence, but on their emotions. As Patrick wrote, the Justices missed an opportunity to provide meaningful precedent on these important issues.
In Hedlund v. State (No. 18-0567), issued on the term’s last day, the plaintiff had urged the Supreme Court to scrap the familiar McDonnell Douglas framework at summary judgment, as it had for jury instructions just weeks before in Hawkins. But in the end, the Court ducked the question, affirming summary judgment on Hedlund’s age-discrimination claim without deciding the question. In this way, Hedlund and Hawkins mirror one another as missed opportunities for the Court to offer guidance to parties, lawyers, and lower courts.