After nearly a decade of litigation, in Godrey v. State of Iowa et al, Case No. 19-1954 (June 30, 2021), the Iowa Supreme Court reversed a jury verdict granting $1.5 million in damages and $3.1 million in attorneys’ fees to the former Iowa Workers’ Compensation Commissioner, based on his allegation that the Governor of the State of Iowa reduced his salary because of his sexual orientation and in retaliation for prior complaints. The Iowa Supreme Court found insufficient evidence that the Governor knew that the plaintiff was gay when he reduced the plaintiff’s salary, which in part caused the plaintiff to resign his position.
The Court relied on its long-standing precedent that “to prove discrimination was because of an employee’s membership in a protected class, the plaintiff must prove the decision-maker knew of the employee’s membership in that protected class.” The Court found the fact that the plaintiff was openly gay, that several of the Governor’s top advisers knew the plaintiff was gay, and the Governor’s public opposition to gay marriage were together insufficient to establish that the Governor knew of the plaintiff’s sexual orientation. The Court indicated the fact that others in the workplace know of an employee’s non-patent protected class status is alone insufficient to make the inference that a decision maker was also aware. The Court also held that the plaintiff’s personal belief that the Governor knew his sexual orientation was insufficient when the plaintiff cited no factual basis for that belief.
The Court found that the State of Iowa and the Governor were entitled to a directed verdict and judgment notwithstanding the verdict (JNOV) on the plaintiff’s claims of sexual orientation discrimination and retaliation, reversed the judgment against the defendants and remanded the case for dismissal of the plaintiff’s claims.
This case is a good reminder for employers defending claims of discrimination based on an employee’s membership in a protected class that is not patent or recordable. Even if others in the workplace knew of an employee’s protected class status, this is alone insufficient to establish discrimination. The plaintiff must establish the decision maker was aware of their protected class status in order to establish discrimination.