UPDATES & ANALYSIS

4.19

State worker failed to prove boss created a hostile work environment, Iowa Supreme Court holds

by Rox Laird | April 19, 2024

The Iowa Supreme Court remanded a $790,000 jury award for a state employee’s hostile-work environment claim to Polk County District Court for entry of a judgment notwithstanding the verdict, which erases the damage award. The Court held that the plaintiff failed to prove her hostile work environment claim based on what she herself experienced.

The Court’s unanimous decision in White v. Department of Human Services was written by Justice Thomas Waterman.

Tracy White alleged inappropriate sexual conduct by her supervisor in her suit against the Iowa Department of Human Services (DHS, which since has been renamed the Department of Health and Human Services) where she works as a social work administrator. The jury returned a verdict in her favor on her claim of hostile work environment and awarded $260,000 for past emotional distress and $530,000 for future emotional distress.

The State filed a motion with the district court for a judgment notwithstanding the verdict arguing that White failed to prove she personally experienced a hostile work environment, and the State filed a motion for a new trial or a reduction in the award for future damages. The district court denied both motions.

In considering the State’s appeal, the Iowa Supreme Court reached only one of the four issues raised by the State: whether White failed to prove she personally experienced harassment that was “objectively severe or pervasive as required to establish her own hostile-work-environment claim.”

The Court held that she did not.

Under the Iowa Civil Rights Act, the alleged harassment must permeate the workplace to the extent that it altered the terms and conditions of the plaintiff’s employment and created an abusive working environment, Waterman wrote, and he said White failed to prove this element.

“White never testified she was physically threatened by [her supervisor] or anyone else at DHS,” Waterman wrote. “No one at DHS touched her inappropriately, propositioned her for sex, or pressured her for romance. She was not assigned more work or paid less than a male social work administrator.” Instead, she made general complaints that her supervisor was rude to her, gave her extra work and favored a female coworker, and White remained on the job after her supervisor was fired.

The court excluded so-called me-too evidence of discrimination from other employees that White first heard when it was introduced at trial. “The law is well settled that me-too evidence about which the plaintiff is unaware cannot be used to prove she experienced severe or pervasive harassment,” Waterman wrote.

Second-hand reports of harassment White heard from coworkers or that were reported to her as a supervisor “are of relatively little value in showing that White personally experienced severe or pervasive harassment, particularly those that she learned about through her official duties as a supervisor,” Waterman wrote.

White argued that the standard for what amounts to “severe or pervasive” harassment in the eyes of jurors has changed since the #MeToo and #timesup movements in response to widely publicized cases of sexual harassment that prompted others to come forward with their own stories of harassment. But the Court did not agree that the standard has changed, pointing to a 2020 Iowa attorney disciplinary decision where it noted a consciousness of sexual harassment long predated the #MeToo movement.

In this case, the Court concluded the evidence of harassment cited by White was not enough to prove that it created a hostile workplace.

“To affirm this judgment would undermine well-established precedent setting a high bar for proof of objectively severe or pervasive harassment,” Waterman wrote, “and it would expose Iowa employers to costly liability for sporadic vulgarities and common personality conflicts.”

 

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