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Iowa: No Punitive Damages for State Civil Rights Claims

By Susan R. Heylman  8/5/2013
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Under the Iowa Civil Rights Act (ICRA), damages for an injury caused by a discriminatory or unfair practice may include actual damages, court costs and reasonable attorney fees. In a sexual harassment case, the Iowa Supreme Court ruled that this ICRA provision does not permit an award of punitive damages. 

The case was brought by three female employees who alleged that a male supervisor and a male employee repeatedly made vulgar and harassing comments to them, including demeaning name-calling, and sexually explicit and offensive discussion about the supervisor’s sexual relationships. In their lawsuits, the employees brought claims for sexual harassment, sex discrimination, and retaliation under the ICRA and asked for punitive damages. The district court granted the employer’s motion to strike the claim for punitive damages, and the employees appealed.

The high court reviewed that it had—in a series of cases decided since 1986—clearly and repeatedly concluded that the legislative scheme of the ICRA did not implicitly permit recovery of an award of punitive damages. Because the statute did not expressly state that punitive damages are an available remedy under the act, they cannot be awarded, the court reiterated.

Turning to the issue of legislative intent, the court also noted that, although the U.S. Congress had amended Title VII of the Civil Rights Act in 1991 to provide for punitive damages, as had some states under their state civil rights statutes, the Iowa legislature had not.

“No significant legislative changes have been made since our first pronouncement in 1986 that would even hint at a shift in legislative intent since that time,” the court said. The issue of punitive damages in civil rights claims had been a topic of national conversation, the court said, “making it very likely that our legislature would have taken action to alter our interpretation if it disapproved.”

Additionally, the court pointed out that the issue involved strong public policy considerations—such as the adverse consequences for employers versus the deterrent effect on employment discrimination—making it an issue particularly appropriate for legislative consideration.

The court affirmed the district court’s ruling and remanded the case for further proceedings.

Ackelson v. Manley Toy Direct L.L.C., Iowa, No. 12-0442 (June 21, 2013).

Susan R. Heylman, J.D., is a freelance legal writer and editor based in the Washington, D.C., area.

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