The principal question in Ferguson was whether an employee may sue her employer for wrongful discharge in violation of the public policy established in Iowa’s drug-testing statute. The Iowa Supreme Court has ruled that some statutes establish well-defined public policies and that employees fired in violation of those policies may sue their employers. These claims are an exception to the general rule of at-will employment.
In the first and most prominent example of a wrongful-discharge claim, an employee fired after filing a workers’ compensation claim was permitted to sue his employer. The legislature granted injured employees a right to seek workers’ compensation; the wrongful-discharge claim deters employers from undermining it by firing seekers. It deters with potential damages, including emotional-distress and punitive damages.
But in that particular case, the legislature hadn’t specified a penalty for discharging the employee—for instance, damages, reinstatement, a right to attorney’s fees. So unless the Supreme Court created a claim, employees might be discouraged from seeking workers’ compensation.
In Ferguson, the legislature by contrast did specify remedies for an employer’s violation of the drug-testing statute. A provision of the drug-testing statute says that violations “may be enforced through a civil action” and an employee may be awarded “reinstatement or hiring, with or without back pay,” and other relief, including “attorney fees and court costs.” Do these remedies foreclose an employee’s wrongful discharge claim?
In a per curiam opinion (by the full court), the Supreme Court answered yes. The original purpose of the wrongful-discharge claim was, the Court observed, “to provide a court remedy to enforce legislatively declared public policy.” Yet such a claim is unnecessary, the Court reasoned, when the statute itself creates a civil claim. And because the drug-testing statute includes a civil claim, the employee may not sue for wrongful discharge.
Employers of course still face liability for violating the drug-testing statute. But Ferguson makes clear that once the legislature has “weighed in” on remedies, as it did there, Iowa courts should leave it at that. The immediate consequence for the employee in Ferguson is that the lower court will wipe away her emotional-distress damages—awarded on top of statutory back wages, reinstatement, and attorney’s fees. Although the emotional-distress damages in Ferguson were modest ($12,000), the case’s broader consequence is that employers do not face potentially soaring emotional-distress and punitive damages for violating the drug-testing statute. Unless, that is, the legislature decides otherwise.