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Baloch v. Pioneer Hi-Bred International, Inc.

Court of Appeals of Iowa

October 9, 2019

QASIM ALI BALOCH, Plaintiff-Appellant,
v.
PIONEER HI-BRED INTERNATIONAL, INC. Defendant-Appellee.

          Appeal from the Iowa District Court for Polk County, Lawrence P. McLellan, Judge.

         Qasim Baloch appeals the district court's denial of his motion for new trial after a jury returned a verdict in favor of Pioneer Hi-Bred International, Inc. on his claims of employment discrimination.

          Amanda M. Bartusek and Bruce H. Stoltze Jr. of Stoltze & Stoltze, PLC, Des Moines, for appellant.

          Christopher E. Hoyme and Jacqueline F. Langland of Jackson Lewis, P.C., Omaha, Nebraska, for appellees.

          Heard by Vaitheswaran, P.J., and Doyle and Bower, JJ.

          VAITHESWARAN, PRESIDING JUDGE.

         Qasim Baloch, a person of Pakistani origin and a practicing Muslim, was employed by Pioneer Hi-Bred International, Inc. (Pioneer) in the information technology department. After tendering his resignation, Baloch sued Pioneer and others for employment discrimination. All the defendants except Pioneer were dismissed. Following trial, a jury determined Baloch failed to prove his claims. The district court subsequently denied his new trial motion.

         On appeal, Baloch challenges (I) the sufficiency of the evidence supporting the jury verdict; (II) defense references to prior lawsuits; (III) the district court's refusal to rescind Pioneer's peremptory strikes of two jurors; and (IV) the district court's decision to instruct the jury on his failure to mitigate damages.

         I. Sufficiency of the Evidence

         Four of Baloch's claims were submitted to the jury: (1) national origin and religion discrimination; (2) national origin, race, and/or religion harassment; (3) retaliation; and (4) failure to accommodate religion.[1] The district court instructed the jury on the elements of proof for each cause of action.

         For the national origin and religion discrimination cause of action, the jury was instructed Baloch had to prove the following:

(1) [H]e had a protected characteristic. The parties stipulate that [he] had the protected characteristic of national origin because he was from Pakistan and that he had the protected religious characteristic of being Muslim.
(2) Pioneer took adverse employment action against him.
(3) [His] religion and/or origin was a motivating factor in the decisions of Pioneer to take the adverse employment action.

         For harassment, the jury was instructed Baloch had to prove:

(1) [He] was subjected to offensive conduct by employees of Pioneer while employed at the company.
(2) Such conduct was unwelcome.
(3) [His] national origin, religion, and/or race was a motivating factor in such conduct.
(4) This conduct was sufficiently severe or pervasive that a reasonable person in [his] position would find his work environment was hostile.
(5) At the time this conduct occurred and as a result of this conduct, [he] reasonably believed that the work environment was hostile.
(6) Pioneer knew or should have known of the occurrence of one or more national origin, religious and/or racially harassing incidents.
(7) Pioneer failed to take prompt and appropriate remedial action to end the harassment.
(8) Pioneer acted negligently in creating or continuing a hostile work environment.

         For retaliation, the jury was instructed Baloch had to prove: "(1) [He] engaged in protected activity[, ] (2) Pioneer took adverse action against [him, and] (3) The protected activity was a motivating factor in Pioneer's decision to take the adverse action."

         For failure to accommodate religion, the jury was instructed Baloch had to prove: "(1) [He] made an accommodation request that he be given a place to pray[, and] (2) Pioneer denied the request." As noted, the jury found for Pioneer on all four claims.

         Baloch contends "there was not substantial evidence to support the verdict of the jury." See City of Cedar Falls v. Cedar Falls Cmty. Sch. Dist, 617 N.W.2d 11, 16 (Iowa 2000). In his view, "[T]he ever-increasing scrutiny on [him] caused him to be constructively discharged and suffer damages after he had complained"; "[i]t was undisputed that [he] was treated differently than other members of his . . . team on the basis of his national origin and religion"; and he "was paid less than other employees who were employed to complete the same work as him." Although Baloch does not tie these assertions to the claims or elements set forth above, we believe they implicate (A) the "adverse employment action" and "adverse action" elements of the national origin and religion discrimination and retaliation claims as well as (B) the "motivating factor" element of the national origin and religion discrimination, harassment, and retaliation claims.

         A. Adverse Employment Action / Adverse Action

         "Adverse employment action" was defined for the jury as "a tangible change in working conditions that produces a material employment disadvantage." "Adverse action" in the context of the retaliation claim was defined as follows:

"Adverse action" means any action which has material consequences to an employee. It is anything that might dissuade a reasonable person from making or supporting an allegation of harassment. You should judge whether an action is sufficiently adverse from the point of ...

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