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Volume X, Number 192

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Iowa Drug Testing Statute Provides Exclusive Remedy For Violations; Separate Wrongful Discharge Claim Is Barred

Addressing a matter of first impression, the Iowa Supreme Court determined that “when a civil cause of action is provided by the legislature in the same statute that creates the public policy to be enforced, the civil cause of action is the exclusive remedy for violation of that statute.” Ferguson v. Exide Technologies, Inc., et al, Case No. 18-1600 (Iowa Dec. 13, 2019). Therefore, a plaintiff who brings a claim for a violation of the Iowa drug testing statute cannot also bring a wrongful discharge claim based on the same conduct.

The employee, a wet formation operator (who was required to lift up to 2300 car and tractor batteries in a single shift), sustained workplace injuries associated with repetitive lifting. After the employee was diagnosed with “tennis elbow” in both arms, the employer requested that she submit to a drug test pursuant to the employer’s drug testing policy. The employee refused to take the test. The employer terminated the employee’s employment the next day.

The employee subsequently filed a lawsuit alleging violation of the Iowa drug testing statute and a claim for wrongful discharge in violation of public policy. The employer admitted violating the drug testing statute but denied liability (the employee was reinstated). On summary judgment, the employer argued that the wrongful discharge claim was preempted by the Iowa drug testing statute. The district court disagreed, and granted summary judgment in favor of the employee on both claims. The case proceeded to a jury trial on damages.

A jury awarded the employee nearly $46,000 in back pay, $12,000 in emotional distress, and $35,000 in attorneys’ fees (associated only with the Iowa drug testing statute claim), which we blogged about here. Under the Iowa drug testing statute, an aggrieved employee only can recover back pay and attorneys’ fees. The employee could not have recovered emotional distress without the wrongful discharge claim.

On appeal, the Iowa Supreme Court reversed the district court, holding that the drug testing statute could not serve as the basis for a wrongful discharge claim. The Court analyzed its prior decisions involving wrongful discharge claims based on statutes that provide a remedy. The Court made a distinction between statutes that provide for administrative remedies and those that provide civil remedies, reasoning that administrative remedies “do not provide the level of protection, control and the right to process involved in the court system.”

The Court explained that the original purpose of the common law claim for wrongful discharge was to “provide a court remedy to enforce legislatively declared public policy.” If the legislature has already “weighed in on the issue” by providing a civil remedy in a statute, the wrongful discharge claim becomes “unnecessary.”

The Court affirmed the district court’s award of attorneys’ fees, but remanded the case with a direction to enter judgment in favor of the employer on the employee’s wrongful discharge claim, vacate the portions of the jury’s damage award that would be available under a common law tort theory, and uphold those portions authorized by the Iowa drug testing statute.

The Court’s decision is significant for Iowa employers. Wrongful discharge claims can expose an employer to back pay, emotional distress and punitive damages. An employee can also request a jury trial on a wrongful discharge claim, which is not available under some statutes, such as the drug testing law. This combination can have a tremendous impact on employers in Iowa, as six-figure emotional distress jury awards have become more commonplace throughout the state.

It is now clear that employees cannot double dip — when a statute provides for civil remedies, those remedies are exclusive. And, an employer’s risk under the notoriously complex Iowa drug testing law will not include emotional distress or punitive damages.

Jackson Lewis P.C. © 2020National Law Review, Volume X, Number 1

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About this Author

Catherine A. Cano, Jackson Lewis, Federal Disability Lawyer, Retaliation Matters Attorney
Associate

Catherine A. Cano is an Associate in the Omaha, Nebraska, office of Jackson Lewis P.C. She represents management in all areas of labor and employment law. 

Ms. Cano helps clients navigate state, federal, and local leave and disability laws. Ms. Cano has experience in litigation and arbitration in several areas, including employment discrimination, retaliation and whistleblower claims, and non-competes and unfair competition. Ms. Cano’s practice also includes assisting clients involved in union organization campaigns, collective bargaining,...

402-391-1991
Sarah J. Millsap, Jackson Lewis, human resource policies lawyer, leave management attorney
Associate

Sarah J. Millsap is an Associate in the Omaha, Nebraska, office of Jackson Lewis P.C. Her practice is focused on employment litigation, labor relations and preventive counseling.

Ms. Millsap has successfully defended employers against claims of discrimination, harassment, retaliation, wage and hour violations and FMLA violations. She also provides employers with preventive counseling on issues such as employee discipline, performance management, human resource policies, leave management and disability matters. She frequently conducts internal investigations and provides training on a variety of workplace law topics.

In addition to her employment litigation and preventive counseling experience, Ms. Millsap has broad experience in representing employers in labor matters, including advocating on behalf of management in grievance arbitrations and representing employers in unfair labor practice charges before the National Labor Relations Board.

402-391-1991
Kenneth Wentz, Litigation Manager, Employment, Jackson Lewis Law Firm
Principal and Office Litigation Manager

Kenneth M. Wentz, III, is a Principal and Litigation Manager in the Omaha, Nebraska, office of Jackson Lewis P.C. He is the Litigation Manager for the Rapid City, South Dakota, office. He concentrates exclusively on the representation of management in litigation and the resolution of employment disputes.

Mr. Wentz serves as an advocate for employers in federal and state courts throughout the Midwest and California, prevailing on numerous motions to dismiss and obtaining summary judgments to gain victory and avoid the expense of trial where possible. Mr. Wentz...

402-391-1991