June 11, 2019

Why Iowa Employers Should Now Consider Same-Decision Defense in Discrimination Cases

A recent Iowa Supreme Court decision confirms that employers are entitled to a “same-decision” jury instruction in mixed-motive cases. Considering this, employers should consider raising a “same-decision” affirmative defense at the outset of litigation and developing evidence during discovery demonstrating they would have made the same decision without regard for a plaintiff’s protected characteristic.

On June 7, 2019, the Iowa Supreme Court unanimously overturned the jury verdict in Gregory Hawkins v. Grinnell Regional Medical Center et al. and ordered a new trial. Hawkins had filed suit against Grinnell Regional in 2016, alleging the hospital terminated his employment because of his age and disability in violation of the Iowa Civil Rights Act (ICRA).

A jury agreed with Hawkins and awarded him monetary damages of more than $4.5 million. The Iowa Supreme Court reversed, holding that the trial court’s admission of hearsay evidence was prejudicial and required retrial.

But more importantly for employers, the Court determined that on retrial, the jury should be instructed under the same-decision framework established by the United States Supreme Court in Price Waterhouse v. Hopkins in the context of Title VII. The Iowa Supreme Court held that when an employee proves his or her protected characteristic “was a motivating factor in the employer’s actions,” the employer may avoid liability by establishing it “would have made the same decision even if it had not taken the plaintiff’s” age, disability, sex, race or any other characteristic protected under the ICRA, “into account.”

The Hawkins v. Grinnell Regional decision confirms what the Iowa Supreme Court had only suggested: that the Price Waterhouse same-decision framework applies under the ICRA and that trial courts must submit an appropriate same-decision instruction to the jury in mixed-motive cases.

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