from the Iowa District Court for Delaware County, Michael J.
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.
D. Wolle of Simmons Perrine Moyer Bergman PLC, Cedar Rapids,
Beck and David R. Albrecht of Fiedler Law Firm P.L.C.,
Johnston, for appellee.
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.
Background Facts and Proceedings.
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.
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.
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.
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. 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.
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
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.
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
Standard of Review.
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
Wrongful Discharge in Violation of Public Policy.
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