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Ferguson v. Exide Technologies, Inc.

Supreme Court of Iowa

December 13, 2019


          Appeal from the Iowa District Court for Delaware County, Michael J. Shubatt, Judge.

         An employer appeals a district court decision finding Iowa Code section 730.5 (2016) does not provide the exclusive civil remedy for its violation and the district court's award of attorney fees.

          Thomas D. Wolle of Simmons Perrine Moyer Bergman PLC, Cedar Rapids, for appellants.

          Amy Beck and David R. Albrecht of Fiedler Law Firm P.L.C., Johnston, for appellee.

          PER CURIAM.

         In this case, we must primarily decide whether a civil enforcement mechanism granted by the legislature in a statute regulating drug testing in the workplace forecloses judicial recognition of an overlapping common law tort for wrongful discharge in violation of public policy. Specifically, we must decide whether a person may bring a wrongful-discharge claim based on a violation of Iowa Code section 730.5 (2016) when the same person already has a statutory remedy under section 730.5 for the same conduct. We conclude a common law wrongful-discharge claim is not available. Accordingly, we reverse the order of the district court denying the defendants' motion for judgment notwithstanding the verdict on the common law claim, affirm the court's rulings on the section 730.5 claim, and remand for further proceedings consistent with this opinion.

         I. Background Facts and Proceedings.

         Deborah Ferguson was employed by Exide Technologies, Inc. as a "wet formation operator." Her job required her to lift up to 2300 car and tractor batteries, ranging from sixty to 180 pounds, in a single shift, from one location to another. Ferguson began her work with Exide in 2012. After changes to her work duties in 2013 increased the amount of lifting she had to do, she began to experience intermittent pain in both her elbows. By September 2016, the pain had become severe and constant. In October 2016, Ferguson concluded the pain was too severe to continue working and reported her pain to her supervisor.

         Ferguson was assigned lighter duty and sent to the plant nurse. She was eventually sent to a doctor who diagnosed her with "tennis elbow" in both elbows. At the doctor's office, she was informed she was required to submit to a drug and alcohol test pursuant to Exide's drug and alcohol testing policy. Ferguson refused to take the test and left the office. Under Exide's policy, the refusal to take a drug test was considered the same as failing a drug test.

         After her appointment, Ferguson, who worked the late shift, received a phone call telling her not to come into work that night. The following day, Exide terminated Ferguson from her employment for her refusal to take the drug and alcohol test.

         Ferguson filed an action in district court against Exide, claiming her termination was wrongful. She brought her claim under a statute providing civil remedies against employers for violating the workplace drug-testing provisions and also asserted a claim for wrongful discharge in violation of public policy. Although it initially denied liability, Exide acknowledged it violated the drug and alcohol testing statute. Since Ferguson's refusal to take the illegal test was the reason for her firing, Exide admitted Ferguson's firing was unlawful.[1] Both parties moved for summary judgment. Exide argued Ferguson's common law claim was preempted by the civil cause of action provided under the statute. Ferguson argued both claims could be brought. The district court granted Ferguson's motion and denied Exide's motion.

         Because Exide admitted to the statutory violation, the case proceeded to trial on the matter of damages alone. Ferguson requested a jury trial, which is available for a common law wrongful discharge in violation of public policy claim, but not the statutory violation. The jury awarded Ferguson $45, 606.40 in lost wages and benefits and $12, 000 in emotional distress damages. Exide renewed its position that the common law claim was barred as a matter of law by filing unsuccessful motions for directed verdict and for judgment notwithstanding the verdict (JNOV).

         Ferguson also requested attorney fees and costs allowed under the statute. She requested fees of $75, 991.99. The district court only awarded fees for the portion of the work in the case devoted to the statutory claim. See Iowa Code § 730.5(15)(a)(1) (authorizing an award of attorney fees); Smith v. Iowa State Univ. of Sci. & Tech., 885 N.W.2d 620, 624 (Iowa 2016) (addressing apportionment of fees when fees were available under some but not all of the plaintiff's claims). Exide objected to the amount of fees Ferguson requested and contended the fees should actually be much lower. The court awarded Ferguson $39, 500 in costs and fees, broken down into $35, 000 in attorney fees and $4500 in court expenses.

         Exide filed an appeal from the denial of its summary judgment and JNOV motions by the district court, as well as from the amount of the attorney fees awarded. We retained the case on appeal.

         II. Standard of Review.

         We review rulings on JNOV motions for correction of errors at law. Doe v. Cent. Iowa Health Sys., 766 N.W.2d 787, 790 (Iowa 2009). We review awards of attorney fees for abuse of discretion. Lee v. State, 874 N.W.2d 631, 637 (Iowa 2016).

         III. Wrongful Discharge in Violation of Public Policy.

         This case centers on Iowa Code section 730.5, the statutory scheme providing for drug and alcohol testing of current and potential employees in Iowa. Section 730.5 is the source of the policy for Ferguson's tortious wrongful-discharge ...

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