Iowa Supreme Court Arrives at Ruling Pertaining to Plaintiff's Rights Regarding Drug Testing Violations and Wrongful Discharge Claims

The court determined that plaintiffs who file charges claiming violations by their employer of the Iowa drug testing statute are restricted from additionally lodging claims of wrongful discharge for the same conduct.

In Ferguson v. Exide Technologies, Inc., the plaintiff filed a lawsuit alleging violation of the Iowa drug testing statute after the employee was terminated upon refusing to submit to a drug test. The employee also brought a wrongful discharge claim against the company for the same action.

Upon the employer's admittance to violation the statute, but denying liability, the employee was reinstated. However, the employer contested the wrongful discharge claim, stating it was preempted by the Iowa drug testing statute. The district court disagreed, and granted summary judgment in favor of the employee for both claims. Upon proceeding to a jury trial, the employee was collectively awarded more than $90,000 in back pay, emotional distress and attorney's fees. While back pay and attorney's fees are recoverable under the Iowa drug statute, emotional distress is not and can only be recovered via a wrongful discharge claim.

The Iowa Supreme Court reversed the district court on appeal, stating that the drug testing statute could not suffice as the basis for a wrongful discharge claim. The Court contended 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 designated a civil remedy in a statute, the wrongful discharge claim becomes "unnecessary." The Court affirmed the award of attorneys' fees to the plaintiff, but entered judgment in favor of the employer on the wrongful discharge claim. As a result, the portions of the jury's damage award that would be available under a common law tort theory were vacated and those portions authorized by the Iowa drug testing statute were upheld.

Iowa employers should be aware of the outcome of this ruling for future situations in which claims are brought by employees regarding drug testing statute violations and wrongful discharge. Employees that file and are awarded wrongful discharge claims can seek back pay, emotional distress, punitive damages and can also request a jury trial on a wrongful discharge claim, which is not available under the drug testing law. Understanding the precedent established by this ruling will be critical for Iowa employers in developing defenses against future potential claims.

Posted: February 10, 2020

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