Using federal law, Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, as a model, the State of Iowa enacted the Iowa Civil Rights Act of 1965 (ICRA) to strengthen anti-discrimination laws on a state level. But the ICRA was not simply a carbon copy of Title VII; instead, the ICRA contained its own unique language, which provided state-specific distinctions to further the interests of Iowans. For thirty-four years, it was an open question as to whether the ICRA authorized individual liability against supervisory employees — as opposed to only employers — for unlawful discrimination. In Vivian v. Madison, 601 N.W.2d 872 (Iowa 1999), the Iowa Supreme Court held that the ICRA’s clear and unambiguous language indeed provided that supervisory employees could be held individually liable for unfair employment practices.
This article reviews the ICRA’s plain language, contrasts it with Title VII’s plain language, and explains why the Iowa Supreme Court correctly interpreted the ICRA to hold that supervisory employees could be held individually liable. For years, the Iowa Supreme Court and federal courts in Iowa consistently analyzed the ICRA against the backdrop of Title VII. In the run-of-the-mill cases involving the run-of-the-mill issues, this analytical tool proved helpful and created no glaring inconsistencies. In addressing the contentious issue of individual supervisory liability for discrimination, however, the Iowa Supreme Court in Vivian explained that using Title VII as a guidepost served as an unnecessary impediment, because Title VII “differs from the ICRA in several key respects.” Focusing on the plain, unambiguous language of the ICRA contrasted with a different statutory structure under Title VII, the Court reasoned that the ICRA’s prohibiting any person from engaging in unlawful employment practices while providing a relief mechanism against any person or employer revealed a clear and deliberate distinction such that employer and person could not mean precisely the same thing. Under this analysis, the Court concluded that both an employer and a supervisor who engages in discrimination can face liability from an individual who has suffered discrimination
When Title VII is read alongside the ICRA in considering whether supervisory employees can be held individually liable under either anti-discrimination statute, it becomes glaringly obvious that the ICRA does not say the same thing as Title VII says, which must result in a conclusion that if they do not say the same thing, they cannot mean the same thing. While Title VII imposes liability on employers, the ICRA imposes liability on persons and employers. To simply bow to an interpretation of Title VII in the supervisor liability context under the ICRA when the statutes use different language would be a wholesale abrogation of a court’s obligation to fairly and broadly interpret and apply both civil rights statutes to carry out their intended purpose. After years of head fakes at bowing to such an unworkable comparison between Title VII and the ICRA, the Iowa Supreme Court in Vivian stood tall and foreclosed any further comparisons between Title VII and the ICRA that could do damage to the ICRA’s purposes to protect individuals from discrimination at the hands of supervisory employees.
Lucas, Tory L., Supervisors Individually Liable Under the Iowa Civil Rights Act (June 1, 2000). The Iowa Lawyer, p. 22, June 2000.