Important Iowa Supreme Court decision

There is another interesting ruling from the Iowa Supreme Court. This one is essential reading for anyone interested in disparate impact law or in arguing for different legal standards under state and federal discrimination law. The opinion has so many different facets deserving much more attention than is possible in a blog post so the following provides only the highlights.

In Pippen v. State, 12-0913, 2014 WL 3537028 (Iowa July 18, 2014), plaintiffs brought a class action alleging that the state of Iowa unlawfully discriminates against African Americans in employment. The case was brought under Title VII and Iowa state law and alleged discrimination in merit-system positions across 37 departments of state government. After a trial, the court found in favor of the state.

In its opinion, the Iowa Supreme Court tries to grapple with the complicated intersection of disparate impact law and class actions post Dukes. The opinion contains a lengthy discussion of the historical development of federal disparate impact law.

The key discussion in the opinion focused on whether the state’s practices were incapable of separate analysis under Title VII’s disparate impact analysis. The plaintiffs’ evidence was largely aimed at employment practices generally, rather than isolated to a particular practice. The Court recognized several instances where plaintiffs could proceed on class wide allegations on a disparate impact theory without focusing on specific practices, including when employer record-keeping is so shoddy that the record-keeping makes separate analysis impossible or when decisions were made with unfettered discretion across departments. The Iowa Supreme Court held, based on the facts of the particular case, that the plaintiffs did not show under federal law that the available data made it difficult to analyze particular practices. However, the reasoning leading up to this holding offers many different avenues for future claimants to argue that the evidence is incapable of separate analysis.

It also continues to separate Iowa state law from Title VII law. The Court stated: “While Congress passed the Civil Rights Act of 1991 in response to Wards Cove, no similar amendment has been made to the Iowa Civil Rights Act. The fact that Congress enacted a legislative change in response to a binding majority opinion of the United States Supreme Court does not have persuasive force in the interpretation of the Iowa Civil Rights Act. We have not adopted the principles of Wards Cove in the construction of the Iowa Civil Rights Act and are not bound to do so. Congressional reaction to a specific case decided by the United States Supreme Court does not shed light on the meaning of state law when there has been no comparable narrow state court precedent to stimulate a legislative override.” Id. at 15. The Court found that the plaintiffs in this particular case had not argued for a different disparate impact analysis and so the Court declined to provide one.   However, the opinion leaves the door wide open for future plaintiffs to argue that Iowa disparate impact doctrine is significantly different than federal law.

Interestingly, the opinion also posits that based on questions during oral argument in Dukes, Justices Kennedy and Roberts might be interested in a negligence theory of discrimination, as discussed in Professor David Benjamin Oppenheimer’s article, Negligent Discrimination, 141 U. Pa. L. Rev. 899 (1993).

Hat tip: Alex Long

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