Reversing a district court’s grant of summary judgment, the Iowa Court of Appeals held an employee presented sufficient evidence for her disability-based hostile work environment claim to proceed to trial, despite the relatively short period of her employment. Munoz v. Adventure Lands of America, Inc., 2021 BL 37057 (Iowa Ct. App. Feb. 3, 2021).
In Munoz, from May 2017 until September 2017, an amusement park employed a seasonal employee with a medical condition that caused her to lose consciousness without warning. Although the amusement park initially moved the employee to a safer department and assignment in case she lost consciousness on the job, the employee alleged that several of her supervisors subjected her to almost daily derogatory comments about her medical condition or its symptoms. One supervisor allegedly asked her: “why the hell [are you] even working with restrictions like that?” Another supervisor told her she “need[ed] to work less because [she was] being a b****.” A third supervisor called her a “gangbanger” and “worthless” on multiple occasions. According to the employee, her supervisors also ridiculed her almost daily due to her frequent need to use the bathroom. The employee reported these incidents to the director of her department, but the director failed to take any action and even participated in belittling the employee by calling her names in a group email.
The employee eventually filed suit alleging workplace harassment and hostile work environment based on disability, among other claims of discrimination. The amusement park moved for summary judgment on all claims and the district court granted the motion.
On appeal, the Iowa Court of Appeals reversed the district court’s ruling on the disability-based hostile work environment claim. The appellate court noted that hostile workplace claims are difficult to prove and typically require an employee to produce evidence of severe and pervasive harassment that affects the terms and conditions of employment – i.e., extreme mistreatment over an extended period of time. Nonetheless, duration of time is just one of several factors to be considered when assessing a hostile work environment, the court stressed. In the case of a seasonal worker who was employed only for a few months, the court said, other factors may weigh more heavily. In this case, the court ruled the employee presented evidence that the harassing remarks were made almost daily, that the remarks were made by direct supervisors (as opposed to coworkers), and that the mistreatment allegedly left the employee traumatized. Accordingly, the appellate court concluded a jury could find that a hostile work environment existed, so summary judgment must be denied.
This decision demonstrates that employers can face liability for discrimination and harassment regardless of how long the employee was employed or whether the employee is classified as a full-time, part-time, or seasonal employee. Indeed, the frequency of the alleged discriminatory treatment, and the identity of the alleged harassers, must always be considered.
If you have any questions regarding this decision or other workplace issues, please contact a Jackson Lewis attorney.