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Huss v. State

Court of Appeals of Iowa

February 6, 2019

LUANN HUSS, Plaintiff-Appellee,

          Appeal from the Iowa District Court for Polk County, Jeffrey D. Farrell, Judge.

         Defendants appeal from the grant of a motion for judgment notwithstanding the verdict.

          Thomas J. Miller, Attorney General, and George A. Carroll, Assistant Attorney General, for appellants.

          David Albrecht, Brooke Timmer (until withdrawal), and Whitney Judkins (until withdrawal) of Fiedler & Timmer, P.L.L.C., Johnston, for appellee.

          Heard by Mullins P.J., McDonald, J., and Danilson, S.J. [*]

          MCDONALD, JUDGE.

         The State of Iowa and Iowa State University (herein collectively referred to as ISU) appeal from the entry of judgment notwithstanding the verdict (JNOV) in favor of former employee Luann Huss on her claims of disability discrimination and failure to accommodate.

         Huss worked for ISU in various positions from 1986 to 2014. In 2006, Huss began to regularly experience a runny nose, dry eyes, fatigue, and headaches. She attributed these conditions to her work environment. By 2010, Huss's symptoms worsened, and she also experienced pain in her teeth and jaw, tingling and numbness around her lips, a raspy voice, and heavy breathing. After bringing her difficulties to a supervisor's attention, ISU conducted air-quality testing in 2010 and 2011 in her work area. These tests revealed a normal amount of mold when compared to mold levels outdoors. In an effort to improve Huss's work environment, ISU dusted, vacuumed, cleaned the office, and hired a company to clean the air handling unit and vacuum the air ducts. In September 2012, ISU conducted further testing for mold and volatile organic compounds. The test results were normal and consistent with other university buildings.

         Despite ISU's efforts, Huss continued to suffer from her symptoms. ISU undertook additional remediation efforts totaling $30, 000. During the remediation, Huss relocated to another office space. Upon completion of the remediation efforts, Huss moved back into her office for a couple of days before requesting a respirator. She was provided a half-mask respirator.

         Huss received treatment from a physician during this time period. Huss's physician described Huss's impairment as "severe allergies to mold spore exposure" and recommended that Huss "indefinitely" move offices to a building without mold and wear "protective gear when exposure occurs." Upon her physician's recommendation, Huss was placed on medical leave in October 2013. Huss returned to work on January 2, 2014 and was there for less than two hours before she suffered a severe reaction. She was again placed on medical leave until April 5, 2014. Around this time, she applied for long-term disability benefits. In support of this claim, Huss's physician indicated, for the first time, Huss "developed Multiple Chemical Sensitivity," also called "Toxicant Induced loss of Tolerance." The physician also made recommendations to ISU: "In view of Luann Huss' severe disabling environmental allergy, I recommend that her office be moved, and she be relocated to an area that does not seem to trigger acute reactions." The physician never submitted any documentation of disability forms.

         Huss ran out of accrued leave on March 13, 2014 and failed to return to work. Subsequently, ISU terminated Huss's employment.

         Huss filed an action for disability discrimination, failure to accommodate, and retaliation. Following a seven-day jury trial, Huss moved for directed verdict, which the district court denied. The jury then returned a unanimous verdict in favor of ISU on all three claims. Huss filed a motion for JNOV and new trial. The district court granted the motion for JNOV, concluding Huss proved each element of her disability-discrimination and failure-to-accommodate claims and that no reasonable mind could differ as to the findings on each element based on the evidence presented. The district court relied heavily on the testimony of Peter Englin, director of the Department of Residence. The court called Englin's testimony "as close to a Perry Mason moment as I have seen in 27 years of the practice of law." The relevant testimony was as follows:

Q. Are you aware [Huss] asked to be moved to Friley to be in the same building as you?

A. No, but . . .

Q. That could have been—

A. It seems -

Q.—a reasonable—could that have been a reasonable accommodation if it was important that she be close to you and able to respond.

A. Yes.

Q. So she could have been reasonably accommodated by being relocated to Friley Hall?

A. I believe so, yes.

Q. And then that would have enabled her to continue working with her team, would have been a minute away, in Helser?

A. Yes.

Q. So why did you refuse to place her in Friley?

A. As I shared, I didn't know that she requested to be in Friley. And as I understand, when a request came in about office space-because we are continually looking at locations to house folks-the two spaces we had: One was a ...

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