2022 Iowa Labor & Employment Year End Review

Published date10 February 2023
Subject MatterEmployment and HR, Discrimination, Disability & Sexual Harassment, Employee Benefits & Compensation, Employee Rights/ Labour Relations
Law FirmLewis Brisbois Bisgaard & Smith LLP
AuthorMr Alexander DeMasi and Alan Rupe

Kansas City, Mo. (February 8, 2023) - This alert reviews key developments in Iowa labor and employment law from the prior year, as well as how these developments will impact employees and employers in 2023.

"A Case of First, and Last Impression": Iowa Supreme Court Clarifies Protections for Transgender Workers

For the first time in nearly four decades, the Iowa Supreme Court addressed the question of whether discrimination on the basis of "sex" includes discrimination based on a person's transgender status.

This question was first addressed in Sommers v. Iowa Civil Rights Commission, 337 N.W.2d 470 (Iowa 1983). Sommers was a transgender female. Two days after starting a new job, an old acquaintance at her workplace recognized her, and her new employer then questioned her about her "sexual status." The next day the employer told Sommers that she could not use the restrooms and terminated her employment. Thereafter, Sommers pursued claims against her employer under the Iowa Civil Rights Act, but at that time, the characteristics protected under the Iowa Civil Rights Act were only: "age, race, creed, color, sex, national origin, religion, or disability." Iowa Code ' 601A.6 (1981). The Iowa Civil Rights Act did not yet include protections for gender identity or sexual orientation, both of which were added in 2007. The civil rights commission and the district court found that neither "sex" nor "disability" in the statute provided protections for discrimination based on gender identity.

The Iowa Supreme Court in Vroegh v. Iowa Dep't of Corr., 972 N.W.2d 686 (Iowa 2022) declared Sommers to be "a case of first, and last impression in Iowa" as the issue of whether "sex" included protection based on a person's gender identity had not been raised in any case before the Iowa Supreme Court since. In Vroegh, the plaintiff sued the Iowa Department of Corrections and his supervisor for sex discrimination and gender identity discrimination for denying him use of the men's restrooms and locker rooms. He also pleaded claims against the Department of Corrections and the Iowa Department of Administrative Services for sex discrimination and gender identity discrimination for denying the same level of healthcare benefit coverage that they provide to non-transgender employees.

The Iowa Supreme Court in Vroegh affirmed the jury's verdicts on the two gender identity discrimination claims. The Vroegh court, however, dismissed the jury's verdict as to the sex discrimination claims. In reaching this decision the Iowa Supreme Court noted:

Discrimination based on an individual's gender identity does not equate to discrimination based on the individual's male or female anatomical characteristics at the time of birth (the definition of "sex"). An employer could discriminate against transgender individuals without knowing the sex of the individuals adversely affected. But that employer, lacking knowledge of the male or female anatomical characteristics of any of the effected employees would (and could not) be engaging in unlawful discrimination based on the individual's "sex."

Citing to the amendments to the Iowa Civil Rights Act in 2007, the Iowa Supreme Court noted that the legislature did not insert into the statute a definition of "sex" that included one's gender identity, as it could have easily done. Instead, it added "gender identity" to the list as its own separate characteristic and provided the term with its own separate definition.

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