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Hawkins v. Grinnell Regional Medical Center

Supreme Court of Iowa

June 7, 2019


          Appeal from the Iowa District Court for Poweshiek County, Randy S. DeGeest, Judge.

         An employer and its agents appeal an adverse jury verdict in an employment discrimination and retaliation case.

          Randall D. Armentrout, Mary E. Funk, Debra Hulett, and David Bower of Nyemaster Goode, P.C., Des Moines, for appellants.

          Katie Ervin Carlson, Nathan Borland, and Brooke Timmer of Timmer & Judkins, P.L.L.C., West Des Moines, for appellee.

          Thomas M. Boes and Catherine M. Lucas of Bradshaw, Fowler, Proctor & Fairgrave, P.C., Des Moines, for amicus curiae Iowa Defense Counsel Association, Iowa Insurance Institute, and Iowa Association of Business and Industry.

          Joel E. Fenton, Des Moines, for amicus curiae Iowa Association for Justice.

          WIGGINS, Justice

         A terminated employee sued his former employer and the employer's agents under the Iowa Civil Rights Act (ICRA), alleging they discriminated against him because of his age and his disability-i.e., his status as a cancer patient-and retaliated against him due to his refusal to retire or quit. The case proceeded to trial, and a jury returned a verdict for the plaintiff, awarding him backpay and emotional distress damages. The district court awarded the plaintiff frontpay and attorney fees. The defendants appealed the verdict, raising various issues. We reverse and remand for a new trial.

         I. Background Facts.

         Grinnell Regional Medical Center (GRMC) hired Gregory Hawkins as a laboratory technologist in 1976 when Hawkins was twenty-two-years old. In 1985, GRMC promoted Hawkins to laboratory director. As the laboratory director, Hawkins was accountable for daily operations of GRMC's laboratory, histology, and mobile services. Hawkins held this position until his termination on June 3, 2015. At all times relevant to this lawsuit, David Ness was GRMC's vice president of operations and Hawkins's direct supervisor and Debra Nowachek was GRMC's human resources director.

         In November 2013, doctors diagnosed Hawkins with stage III breast cancer. On December 4, Hawkins underwent a left breast surgical mastectomy followed by chemotherapy and radiation treatments. During this time, Hawkins took family and medical leave pursuant to GRMC's family and medical leave policy and the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA). On March 19, 2014, while still undergoing weekly chemotherapy treatments, Hawkins returned to work part-time and used the remainder of his FMLA leave for partial-day absences through May 17. After he exhausted his FMLA allowance, GRMC granted Hawkins extra leave pursuant to its policy, and Hawkins continued working part-time.

         On June 2, Ness, Nowachek, and GRMC's chief executive officer, Todd Linden, met with Hawkins, who reported that his doctor instructed him to remain on a part-time schedule indefinitely. Linden told Hawkins GRMC needed someone in the laboratory full-time so GRMC would no longer be able to employ Hawkins as laboratory director. Linden asked Hawkins to resign within ninety days. Shortly after the meeting, Hawkins learned he would finish cancer treatments and be able to return to work full-time by December 2014. Hawkins emailed Ness to share this news, expressing that he wished to keep his job at GRMC and GRMC should not force him to resign. Ness forwarded the email to Nowachek and Linden, commenting, "He's going to make us term him."

         On June 19, GRMC featured Hawkins in a public advertisement for chemotherapy services. That same day, Ness and Linden told Hawkins he had only thirty days left to resign or retire, otherwise GRMC would terminate him. Hawkins refused to resign or retire. Following this, GRMC's board of directors' executive committee met and decided to give Hawkins additional recovery time. On July 9, despite the board giving Hawkins extra recovery time, Ness and Nowachek forced Hawkins to take an unwanted leave of absence and appointed an interim laboratory director.

         On October 6, Hawkins returned to GRMC full-time as the laboratory director. Three weeks before his return, on September 16, Hawkins emailed Ness, Nowachek, and Linden to confirm that he could return to work without any retaliation. From December 2014 through May 2015, GRMC reported performance issues with Hawkins's work.

         On May 13, 2015, Hawkins filed a complaint with the Iowa Civil Rights Commission, alleging age discrimination, disability discrimination, and retaliation. On May 22, Ness emailed the GRMC board to discuss firing Hawkins. On June 3, three weeks after Hawkins filed his civil rights complaint, GRMC fired Hawkins.

         II. Proceedings.

         Hawkins filed his ICRA suit against GRMC, Ness, Nowachek, and Linden in district court on February 4, 2016.[1] He claimed GRMC discriminated against him because of his age and disability-i.e., his status as a cancer patient-and retaliated against him for refusing to resign. GRMC contended it did not terminate Hawkins for a discriminatory or retaliatory reason but rather because of his poor job performance.

         The jury returned a verdict in Hawkins's favor on all claims against GRMC and awarded Hawkins $222, 009.68 in backpay, $2, 000, 000 for past emotional distress, and $2, 280, 000 for future emotional distress.

         On August 8, 2017, GRMC filed a motion for a new trial and remittitur of damages. On September 5, Hawkins moved for equitable relief and attorney fees. The district court denied GRMC's motion, granted Hawkins's motion, and awarded Hawkins $241, 746 in frontpay through December 31, 2019, and $615, 208 in attorney fees.

         GRMC appeals. We will discuss other facts as needed.

         III. Issues.

         Although GRMC raises five issues on appeal, we need to address only the evidentiary hearsay challenge because that issue is dispositive. Nevertheless, we also address the challenge to the same-decision jury instruction because that issue may reoccur on retrial.

         IV. Whether the District Court Erred in Admitting Hearsay.

         We generally review challenges to district court decisions to exclude or admit evidence for an abuse of discretion. State v. Jordan, 663 N.W.2d 877, 879 (Iowa 2003). However, we review challenges to hearsay and other evidence implicating the interpretation of a rule of evidence for correction of errors at law. State v. Paredes, 775 N.W.2d 554, 560 (Iowa 2009). We also apply this standard of correction of errors at law "to determin[e] whether statements come within an exception to the general prohibition on hearsay evidence." Id. Finally, unless the record shows the contrary, we presume improperly admitted hearsay evidence is prejudicial to the nonoffering party. State v. Elliott, 806 N.W.2d 660, 669 (Iowa 2011).

         " 'Hearsay' means a statement that: (1) The declarant does not make while testifying at the current trial or hearing; and (2) A party offers into evidence to prove the truth of the matter asserted in the statement." Iowa R. Evid. 5.801(c). We must analyze the purposes for which a party offers the alleged hearsay to determine if it is admissible. State v. Sowder, 394 N.W.2d 368, 371 (Iowa 1986); State v. Horn, 282 N.W.2d 717, 724 (Iowa 1979). We do not rely on the purpose urged by the party offering the alleged hearsay; rather we look at the true purpose for which the party offered the testimony. ...

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