Deeds v. City of Marion

Decision Date22 June 2018
Docket NumberNo. 16-1666,16-1666
Citation914 N.W.2d 330
Parties Nolan DEEDS, Appellant, v. CITY OF MARION, Iowa ; St. Luke’s Work Well Solutions ; St. Luke’s Healthcare; and Iowa Health System d/b/a UnityPoint Health, Appellees.
CourtIowa Supreme Court

914 N.W.2d 330

Nolan DEEDS, Appellant,
CITY OF MARION, Iowa ; St. Luke’s Work Well Solutions ; St. Luke’s Healthcare; and Iowa Health System d/b/a UnityPoint Health, Appellees.

No. 16-1666

Supreme Court of Iowa.

Filed June 22, 2018

Brooke Timmer, Katie Ervin Carlson, and Nathan J. Borland (until withdrawal) of Fiedler & Timmer, P.L.L.C., Johnston, for appellant.

Amy L. Reasner of Lynch Dallas, P.C., Cedar Rapids, for appellee City of Marion.

Karin A. Johnson, Samantha M. Rollins, and Mitch G. Nass of Faegre Baker Daniels LLP, Des Moines, for appellees St. Luke’s Work Well Solutions, St. Luke’s Healthcare, and Iowa Health System d/b/a UnityPoint Health.

WATERMAN, Justice.

In this appeal, we must decide whether the district court correctly granted summary judgment dismissing the plaintiff’s disability discrimination claims. The plaintiff, who has multiple sclerosis (MS), applied for a full-time job as a firefighter. The defendant City declined to hire him after the physician performing its preemployment physical examination reported the applicant was not medically qualified for the position. The physician made that determination based on national firefighter guidelines that disqualify persons with MS with active symptoms within three years because MS symptoms could hinder job performance and thereby endanger rescuers and persons needing assistance in a fire emergency. The physician did not inform the City that MS was the reason the applicant was found unfit for firefighting, and the City did not inquire further into why the applicant was disqualified. The plaintiff did not inform the City he had MS or ask for any accommodation. Months later, he filed a complaint with the Iowa Civil Rights Commission (ICRC), alleging

914 N.W.2d 334

disability discrimination and then failed to accept the City’s offer to explore reasonable accommodations through an interactive process.

The plaintiff instead sued the City and the physician’s employer under the Iowa Civil Rights Act (ICRA), alleging disability discrimination by the City and that the physician aided and abetted the discrimination. The district court granted summary judgment for all defendants. The district court concluded that because the City was unaware of the plaintiff’s MS, plaintiff could not prove the City declined to hire him because of that disability. And the district court ruled the medical defendants were not liable under the ICRA for providing an independent medical opinion in an advisory role. The plaintiff appealed, and we transferred the case to the court of appeals, which affirmed the summary judgment over a partial dissent. We granted the plaintiff’s application for further review.

On our review, we hold that the plaintiff could not prove the City discriminated against him because of his MS when the City was unaware he had MS. The City is not required to be a mind reader. On this record, without any requested accommodation by the plaintiff, the City had no duty to second-guess the physician’s opinion that the plaintiff was medically unqualified for the position. The physician, in turn, is not liable for providing her independent medical opinion or for aiding and abetting without proof the City intentionally discriminated against the plaintiff. We therefore affirm the summary judgment.

I. Background Facts and Proceedings.

Nolan Deeds had served as a volunteer firefighter for the City of Coralville since August 2009. Deeds first experienced symptoms of MS in December 2011. He was deer hunting when he felt numbness in his right hand. The numbness spread to his right foot and then to his entire right side. On December 14, Deeds sought treatment at Mercy Urgent Care where he reported the numbness made it "difficult to rise from bed in [the] morning" and made him "feel[ ] weak and unsteady on [his] right when walking." Deeds was referred for an MRI and was examined by Dr. Richard Neiman, a neurologist with Neurological Associates of Iowa City. On December 22, Dr. Neiman gave a probable diagnosis of MS. Deeds received treatment, and his symptoms cleared up by late February 2012.

After Deeds was diagnosed with MS, Dr. Neiman released him to return to "full activity for the Coralville Fire Department." The City of Coralville, however, retained Dr. Patrick Hartley to evaluate Deeds to determine if he was fit for duty. Dr. Hartley was "not comfortable clearing [Deeds] to resume unrestricted duties as a firefighter." The Coralville Fire Department declined to allow Deeds to return to volunteer firefighting based on Dr. Hartley’s evaluation. Deeds did not challenge Coralville’s decision to disqualify him from its firefighting position.

In March 2012, Deeds applied for a position as a professional firefighter with the City of Marion. At the time, he was certified as a Firefighter I and II and an EMT-B (basic). Deeds was also taking classes and completing other requirements to obtain a paramedic certification, which he achieved in 2013. Deeds passed the written civil service commission test required for the position. Deeds also passed the physical agility test. In April, Deeds interviewed with Fire Chief Terry Jackson (who has since retired) and Assistant Fire Chief Deb Krebill (who is now the Marion fire chief). The interview went well, and Deeds

914 N.W.2d 335

was placed on a list of approved candidates.

In July, Deeds applied for a firefighter position with the City of Cedar Rapids. Deeds was interviewed by members of the Cedar Rapids Fire Department and the City’s civil service commission in the fall of 2012 but did not receive a job offer. He was placed on the certified list of eligible candidates for the Cedar Rapids firefighter position for one year.

Deeds experienced numbness in his right foot again in December 2012 and January 2013. A clinic note by Dr. Pedro Gonzalez-Alegre set forth Deeds’s description of his symptoms:

One month ago, patient noted right foot numbness. In the course of 2-3 days, it spread to involve his left foot as well. The numbness then began to involve both legs and the back of both thighs. Over the course of the last week to week and a half, patient notes that his gait has worsened. Specifically, he notices that he wobbles when he walks.

Deeds’s symptoms resolved by early February. Deeds had no MS symptoms since then, and in April of that year, he sought a second opinion from Dr. E. Tourage Shivapour, who diagnosed Deeds with relapse and remitting MS. He was prescribed different medication, which he has taken since spring 2013 without side effects.

In July, the Cedar Rapids Fire Department invited Deeds and others on the City’s certified list to interview for newly opened firefighter positions. Deeds completed another interview and received a conditional offer of employment on July 25 "contingent upon satisfactory completion of a medical screening."

Deeds then completed a health screening with Jennifer Motroni, an occupational health nurse for the City of Cedar Rapids. Motroni conducted some medical tests, and Deeds completed the Municipal Fire and Police Retirement System of Iowa (MFPRSI) medical history questionnaire.1 Deeds informed Motroni that he had been diagnosed with MS, and Motroni reached out to Dr. Shivapour with specific questions about how Deeds’s MS diagnosis could affect his performance as a firefighter. In response, Dr. Shivapour completed a "Physician’s Report to Employer," in which he indicated that Deeds could work with no restrictions.

Dr. Jeffrey Westpheling, a St. Luke’s Work Well Solutions (Work Well) physician, conducted a physical exam of Deeds on September 4 to determine if Deeds was medically qualified to work as a firefighter for Cedar Rapids. During the examination, Deeds and Dr. Westpheling discussed Deeds’s MS diagnosis, the nature of his symptoms, and the dates when Deeds experienced those symptoms. Dr. Westpheling asked him to provide medical records from his neurologists; Deeds complied.

Before attending medical school, Dr. Westpheling had worked as a Des Moines firefighter for over five years and was thereby familiar with the essential job functions of a firefighter. Dr. Westpheling consulted the 2013 edition of the National

914 N.W.2d 336

Fire Protection Association (NFPA) 1582, "Standard on Comprehensive Occupational Medical Program for Fire Departments." Dr. Westpheling explained why he consulted that standard:

In cases where there is [a] question on whether or not an applicant can perform the essential duties of [a] firefighter, the first standard to look at is the MFPRSI guidelines as set forth in the protocol. If it’s not something that’s expressed in the protocol, then one has to go to the next best available guidance, and in this case it would be the NFPA 1582 which is a consensus opinion of expert panels including fire chiefs, fire service members, physicians, [and] specialists in the areas of recommendations. That in my mind is the next best available source to look at, and so that’s why I consulted the NFPA 1582 and have done so numerous times in the past and since. It’s continually updated with new findings and new recommendations as well.

NFPA 1582 labels "[m]ultiple sclerosis with activity or evidence of progression within previous 3...

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