Iowa Supreme Court Adopts Modified Summary Judgment Test on Discrimination Claims

Posted on: April 3rd, 2023

On a motion for summary judgment in an age discrimination claim, the Iowa Supreme Court modified the burden-shifting framework for summary judgment on discrimination claims under the Iowa Civil Rights Act (ICRA) to align with the causation standard at trial. The Court adopted the good-faith “honest belief rule” to affirm the employer’s decision to terminate the plaintiff for insubordination.

David Alan Feeback was a sixty year old at-will employee of Swift Pork Company (Swift). He worked at Swift for nearly thirty years holding numerous positions at a pork processing plant, including floor supervisor. After a negative performance review, Feeback sent text messages to his supervisor, one including strong profanity and another saying, “Believe who and what you want.” Feeback was interviewed the next morning and subsequently fired for insubordination. Feeback brought suit against Swift for wrongful termination, workplace harassment, and age discrimination. Swift moved for summary judgment arguing that this at-will employee was lawfully fired for insubordination. Plaintiff argued, in part, that he meant to send the texts to someone else, that defendants retaliated against him for making safety complaints before his termination, and profanity was widespread in the workplace. The district court granted summary judgment on all claims. The court of appeals reinstated the age discrimination claim.

The Supreme Court applied a modified McDonnel Douglas test for summary judgment on ICRA discrimination claims that rest on indirect evidence. Under this test, the employees “must carry the initial burden of establishing a prima facie case of age discrimination.” Employees do so by showing they are members of a protected group (i.e., age sixty), were qualified for their positions, and the circumstances of their discharge raised an inference of discrimination. Then, the employer must “articulate some legitimate, nondiscriminatory reason for its employment action.” Next, the burden shifts back to the employee to demonstrate the employer’s proffered reason is pretextual or, while true, was not the only reason for his termination and that his age was another motivating factor.

Iowa R. Civ. P. 1.981(5) provides a similar burden shifting framework on summary judgment. The Court ruled that under both rule 1.981(5) and the modified McDonnel Douglas test, Feeback had to show he had admissible evidence to establish Swift’s proffered reason was a pretext for age discrimination. Feeback argued that he intended the texts for someone else which raised an inference that insubordination was pretextual. However, the Supreme Court adopted the “honest belief rule” and stated that the question was not whether the texts were sent accidentally, but rather if the employer had a good-faith honest belief that Feeback was insubordinate. Therefore, to survive summary judgment, Feeback had to show that his employer did not honestly believe the legitimate reason that it proffered. Feeback failed to make this showing. The Court also rejected Feeback’s argument that profanity was commonplace at the meatpacking plant finding that there is a difference between swearing generally and swearing directly at one’s supervisor. Swift’s summary judgment motion was granted on all claims.

David Alan Feeback v. Swift Pork Company, Troy Mulgrew, and Todd Carl, No. 20-1467 (March 31, 2023).

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