UPDATES & ANALYSIS

6.20

Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals affirms dismissal of former City of Cedar Falls employee’s claims against the city

by Nathan Wegmann | June 20, 2022

Michelle Brandt, a long-time Cedar Falls city employee, brought claims against the city and several employees stemming from her time working for the city as well as her termination in 2018. Brandt brought claims for interference with and retaliation for her exercise of Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) rights, and claims of age discrimination, disability discrimination, hostile work environment, and retaliation under the Iowa Civil Rights Act (ICRA). The district court granted summary judgment in favor of defendants on all of the claims. Brandt appealed, and the Eight Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed the decision of the district court.

Brandt worked in a part-time capacity for the city of Cedar Falls from 2001 until her termination in 2018. Later during her time with the city, Brandt applied for at least five new roles, three of which were full-time positions. She was passed over in favor of other applicants for all positions. Beginning in 2007 until she was fired, Brandt took FMLA leave several times, and the leave requests became more frequent in 2016. In October 2017, Brandt made a leave request due to anxiety, depression, and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). On account of these mental health conditions, Brandt’s psychiatrist noted that she would need ten-minute breaks every two hours during the workday. Brandt made the request in line with the psychiatrist’s recommendation, and her request was granted, with a stipulation from the city. The city required Brandt to arrive at work five minutes early each day to make up for the hours she would miss due to her frequent breaks. Brandt also alleged that during her employment she was treated poorly by other employees. She alleged that she was insulted by comments about her frequent leave and was called derogatory names based on her age.

Brandt brought an action in state court, alleging failure to accommodate, failure to promote, undesirable transfer, failure to train, improper discipline, improper termination, unequal pay, harassment, suspension, and retaliation. The case was removed to federal district court where the defendants’ motion for summary judgement was granted.

The Eight Circuit addressed the FMLA claims and the ICRA claims separately. With regard to Brandt’s FMLA interference claim, the district court concluded that a reasonable jury could find that requiring Brandt to show up to work five minutes early every day to make up for her time missed due to FMLA leave amounted to interference. However, the district court found the defendants were entitled to summary judgment because Brandt did not show that she was damaged. The Eight Circuit affirmed this finding, noting that Brandt had not sought compensatory damages nor equitable relief (i.e., reinstatement) arising from the alleged interference, and that nominal damages were not available for an FMLA action. The Eighth Circuit also affirmed the district court’s ruling that Brandt failed to show that the city retaliated against her by firing her for taking FMLA leave. The Court held that Brandt’s significant history of performance issues was a valid non-discriminatory reason for her firing, which shifted the burden to Brandt to prove the proffered reasons for her termination were merely a pretext. Brandt did not offer any evidence to prove the reasons were pretext, so her claim failed as a matter of law.

The Eighth Circuit also affirmed the district court’s dismissal of Brandt’s age and disability discrimination claims under the ICRA. The Court preliminarily noted that Brandt’s claim of failure to promote was barred by the 300-day statute of limitations because Brandt’s last application for a full-time position was made in May of 2017, which was approximately one year prior to her filing with the Iowa Civil Rights Commission (ICRC). Additionally, just as with Brandt’s FMLA retaliation claim, she failed to produce any evidence that the justifications for her firing were a mere pretext for discrimination, so the Court of Appeals affirmed summary judgment in the defendants’ favor.

Finally, the Court addressed Brandt’s ICRA hostile work environment claim. The Court affirmed the district court’s grant of summary judgment to defendants because Brandt’s claim was barred by the 300-day statute of limitations. The Court noted the stray comments Brandt heard indisputably occurred prior to the statute of limitations cut-off date, and the disciplinary actions she received were focused on her poor work performance – not age or disability.

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