Judge Orders Iowa DNR To Stop Discriminating Against Disabled Employees

This morning, Polk County District Court Judge Robert Hanson ordered the Forestry Bureau of the Iowa Department of Natural Resources to “cease and desist from discriminating on the basis of disability.” The order follows a jury verdict that found that the DNR discriminated against John Vetter, a 36-year employee, on the basis of his disability when the agency fired him on August 23, 2013. The court further ordered the DNR to pay Vetter $88,690.19 in front pay, in addition to the $599,732.13 awarded to Vetter by the jury in August 2015. [View the order]

John Vetter worked as a Natural Resources Technician for the Iowa DNR at the State Forest Nursery in Ames from January 1977 until August 23, 2013. John was injured at work on July 29, 2011, and underwent invasive spinal surgery in November 2011. He was released to work with restrictions in January 2012. John returned to work and resumed his normal job duties. John continued working without incident and, in January 2013, his supervisor gave him a positive annual review, indicating that John met or exceeded all of the DNR’s expectations and requirements.

But just one month later, the DNR hired a physical therapist to evaluate John’s job and his physical restrictions. John was the only employee required to undergo this evaluation. Even though no one from the DNR or the State Forest Nursery ever talked to John about his restrictions or what accommodations he may need to perform his job duties, the DNR placed John on an involuntary medical leave on May 17, 2013, claiming John could not perform his job duties because of his restrictions and that no reasonable accommodations were available to let him keep his job. The DNR fired John when his medical leave ran out on August 23, 2013.

At trial, John testified that he was able to perform his job duties with or without reasonable accommodations. DNR employees admitted that they mishandled John’s situation, he could have continued performing his job duties with or without reasonable accommodations, and told the jury that they would do things differently if given another chance. The Polk County jury returned a verdict finding that the DNR discriminated against John because of his disability and failed to provide John with a reasonable accommodation. On August 7, 2015, the jury awarded $164,732.13 for back pay, $250,000 for past emotional distress, and $185,000 for future emotional distress, for a total verdict of $599,732.13.

John requested front pay and equitable relief, including an order that the DNR cease and desist from discriminating against disabled employees, conduct additional training, and revise its policies to ensure compliance with state and federal civil rights laws.

On January 5, 2016, District Judge Robert Hanson, who presided over the trial, granted John’s request, ordering the Iowa DNR to pay John $88,690.19 in front pay. Judge Hanson issued the following order on John’s request for equitable relief:

  • The Forestry Bureau of the DNR and, in particular, its managers, supervisors, and human resources personnel shall cease and desist from discriminating on the basis of disability.
  • The Forestry Bureau of the DNR and, in particular, its managers, supervisors, and human resources personnel shall review, for purposes of legal compliance and accuracy, the content of any and all employee handbooks and other materials supplied to its employees regarding a) employer/employee rights and responsibilities relating to disability and accommodation of same, b) employer/employee rights and responsibilities regarding workers’ compensation, and c) how the two areas operate in tandem with one another in a given situation. Said review shall include, but not be limited to, specifically addressing the extent to which an employee with a disability should be directly involved in the interactive process for purposes of determination of reasonable accommodation of that employee’s disability.
  • All present and future employees of the Forestry Bureau of the DNR, especially managers, supervisors, and human resources personnel, shall receive training specifically addressing a) disability discrimination including, but not limited to, accommodation of disability and the interactive process, b) workers’ compensation law, and c) how the two areas operate in tandem with one another in a given situation. Said training shall be received within the 12-month time period commencing upon the entry of this order for existing employees and, for employees hired in the future, within the 12-month time period immediately following their hiring.

The total judgment in John’s case, before attorney’s fees and costs, stands at $688,422.32.

Click here to view the order granting front pay and equitable relief.