Iowa Supreme Court Limits Individual Liability in Iowa Civil Rights Claim

Posted on: August 10th, 2023

Davina Valdez, a teacher’s associate at the West Des Moines Community Schools, brought suit against the school district and one of its teachers, Desira Johnson, alleging Johnson engaged in racial discrimination which led Valdez to resign. Valdez argued Johnson should be subject to individual liability for creating a hostile working environment under the Iowa Civil Rights Act, even if there was no supervisory authority found.


Liability under the Iowa Civil Rights Act for creating a hostile work environment is limited in Iowa to supervisory employees or employers. The Supreme Court carefully extended this idea to nonsupervisory employees who are both personally involved in, and have the ability to effectuate, some particular challenged discriminatory action. Rumsey v. Woodgrain Millwork, Inc., 962 N.W.2d 9, 36 (Iowa 2021). In certain types of ICRA claims, the Court no longer examines the defendant’s authority or control over the plaintiff (whether the defendant was the plaintiff’s supervisor). Instead, the inquiry is focused on the defendant’s authority or control over the challenged employment action. However, in the context of hostile work environment claims, this analysis is not fitting.  “Nonsupervisory employees cannot ‘effectuate’ a hostile working environment because they are not responsible for creating or maintaining the working environment and lack the authority to correct or prevent an abusive environment.” As such, the considerations are limited to the defendant’s control over the plaintiff.


In the present case, the Court first determined there was insufficient evidence to establish that Johnson could exercise supervisory authority over Valdez such that would give rise to individual liability. Second, the Court rejected Valdez’ argument to extend individual liability in claims for hostile work environment to nonsupervisory employees because those employees do not have the authority to allow harassment to continue to the point of a hostile work environment. That authority lies with supervisory employees.


Davina Valdez v. West Des Moines Community Schools and Desira Johnson, No. 21-1327 (June 30, 2023).

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