Falczynski v. Amoco Oil Co., No. 93-1575

CourtUnited States State Supreme Court of Iowa
Writing for the CourtConsidered by McGIVERIN; McGIVERIN
Citation533 N.W.2d 226
Parties71 Fair Empl.Prac.Cas. (BNA) 1029, 4 A.D. Cases 777, 6 NDLR P 359 Danuta FALCZYNSKI, Appellant, v. AMOCO OIL COMPANY, d/b/a Amoco Customer Service Center, Appellee.
Docket NumberNo. 93-1575
Decision Date24 May 1995

Page 226

533 N.W.2d 226
71 Fair Empl.Prac.Cas. (BNA) 1029, 4 A.D. Cases 777,
6 NDLR P 359
Danuta FALCZYNSKI, Appellant,
v.
AMOCO OIL COMPANY, d/b/a Amoco Customer Service Center, Appellee.
No. 93-1575.
Supreme Court of Iowa.
May 24, 1995.

Page 228

Roxanne Barton Conlin of Roxanne Barton Conlin Law Firm, and Jacqueline Jorgensen, Des Moines, for appellant.

Michael A. Warner and Elizabeth Skalitzky of Seyfarth, Shaw, Fairweather & Geraldson, Chicago, IL, and Gene R. LaSuer and Sharon K. Malheiro of Davis, Hockenberg, Wine, Brown, Koehn & Shors, P.C., Des Moines, for appellee.

Considered by McGIVERIN, C.J., and HARRIS, LARSON, SNELL, and TERNUS, JJ.

McGIVERIN, Chief Justice.

Danuta Falczynski brought this action against her former employer, Amoco Oil Company, claiming national origin discrimination, disability discrimination, and breach of contract of employment.

In a bench trial, the district court tried the case as a law action and rejected each of plaintiff Falczynski's claims. We affirm the district court's judgment regarding the national origin discrimination claims and the implied contract of employment claim because we find no error in those rulings. However, we reverse and remand the district court's judgment regarding the disability discrimination claim because in making its determination the district court failed to follow the correct legal analysis.

I. Background facts and proceedings. Plaintiff, Danuta Falczynski, immigrated to the United States from her native Poland in 1984.

In June 1988 the defendant, Amoco Oil Company (Amoco), hired Falczynski as a non-exempt or hourly employee to work in the general ledger section of its accounting department as an accounting clerk. She worked in this capacity for Amoco for almost two years and received two "satisfactory" performance evaluations.

In spite of these ratings, Falczynski's skill level was not what Amoco expected, and she had difficulty getting her work completed in a timely fashion. Recognizing this, some of Amoco's supervisors decided she could do better at repetitive work, and, accordingly, on April 30, 1990 transferred her to the capital investment section of Amoco's accounting department to perform computer data entry work. In doing so, Amoco made an exception in order to allow the plaintiff to remain at her then current pay and benefit level.

Feeling she was qualified to perform accounting work, Falczynski was not happy with the transfer. She was also unhappy with her new supervisor, Helen Rode. She described Rode as a tough and demanding supervisor who was mean to her and other minorities. At one time in 1990, Falczynski and another Amoco employee of Laotian background went to the human resources department and lodged a complaint against

Page 229

Rode. Although neither employee reported instances of Rode making overt references to their national origin nor examples of Rode's specific behavior, they stated that they felt that they were treated differently than other nonforeign-born Amoco employees.

Besides plaintiff's alleged problems with her immediate supervisor Rode, she also had problems with her health. In 1989, she began experiencing problems with her lungs. Between March 1989 and December 1989, while plaintiff was still working in Amoco's general ledger section as an accounting clerk, she had approximately ten medical appointments. Her family physician, Dr. Kelly Bast, initially diagnosed her illness as bronchitis and allergies, but he was unable to prescribe a treatment that could alleviate her symptoms. The plaintiff also visited Amoco's company nurse, Jennifer Borst, several times and complained of shortness of breath, pleuritic chest pain, heart pain, and chest burning.

Suffering from these symptoms and seeking an effective treatment, the plaintiff often missed work to stay home or attend medical appointments. Between January 1990 and October 1990, the plaintiff was absent from work for varying periods of time on the following dates:

 --January 17"24 --April 11
                 --April 26 --May 1
                 --May 3"4 --May 17
                 --May 24 --June 14
                 --June 24"26 --July 13
                 --August 16 --September 5"7
                 --September 13"24 --October 2
                

Throughout Falczynski's employment with Amoco, Amoco had in force an attendance policy that applied to all non-exempt Amoco employees such as Falczynski. The policy was premised on the concept of an "occasion," which was defined as an absence from work for a period of time greater than sixty minutes. If an employee was absent for a consecutive period of time due to a specific illness, however, the entire consecutive period was counted as one "occasion." The policy provided that employees could make up absences in the same week as they occurred to avoid having them counted as an "occasion."

Under this attendance policy, an employee who accrued four or five "occasions" of absence during a twelve-month period was subject to informal counseling and an employee who accrued seven "occasions" of absence during that same time period was subject to a formal warning letter. Once an employee accrued eight "occasions" of absences during a twelve-month period, the employee was subject to termination.

Throughout 1990, Falczynski's immediate supervisor, Rode, both informally and formally counseled Falczynski regarding these attendance requirements and the fact that Falczynski's attendance problem threatened her continued employment with Amoco. Rode encouraged Falczynski to make up some of the missed time on evenings or weekends in order to avoid violating Amoco's attendance policy.

On August 10, 1990, when Falczynski had accrued ten "occasions" of absence, Rode and one of Amoco's human resources representatives, Mark Giorgini, met with Falczynski and again reviewed the attendance policy with her. Giorgini and Rode warned the plaintiff that she could be terminated if her attendance problem persisted. Also, on August 15, 1990, Giorgini discussed with Falczynski the possibility of taking paid sick and disability leave or unpaid medical leave.

On September 10, 1990, at which time Falczynski had twelve "occasions" of absence, she received and signed a written warning letter from Rode. Through the letter, Rode informed Falczynski that time away from work would have to be made up in order to avoid further "occasions" of absence. The letter further advised her that failure to follow the letter's instructions could be grounds for immediate termination.

After Falczynski received the warning letter, she accrued two more "occasions" of absence, making a total of fourteen for the year. Amoco then terminated Falczynski on October 16, 1990. Amoco's stated reason for the termination was Falczynski's violation of its attendance policy.

Later in October 1990, Falczynski's illness was diagnosed as an atypical form of asthma.

Page 230

Following her termination, Falczynski brought three types of claims against Amoco: (1) claims of national origin discrimination under the Iowa civil rights statute, Iowa Code chapter 601A (1989), 1 and under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, 42 U.S.C. sections 2000e--2000e-17 (1988); (2) a claim of disability discrimination under Iowa Code chapter 601A; and (3) a claim of breach of contract of employment based on Iowa case law.

These law action claims were tried to the court without a jury. The trial court dismissed all of the claims, generally concluding that Amoco terminated Falczynski's employment because of her excessive absenteeism in violation of its policy rather than because of her national origin or any disability, and that Amoco's policies were not sufficiently definite in their terms to create an offer of continued employment.

Plaintiff appealed and assigns error concerning the trial court's findings and conclusions as to each of her claims.

II. Scope of review. Our review of discrimination claims tried to the court is at law. Boelman v. Manson State Bank, 522 N.W.2d 73, 76 (Iowa 1994) (citation omitted). Likewise, our review of breach of implied or unilateral contract of employment claims tried to the court is for correction of errors at law. See Fogel v. Trustees of Iowa College, 446 N.W.2d 451, 456 (Iowa 1989); see also Iowa R.App.P. 4.

In our review, we are bound by the trial court's findings of fact if they are supported by substantial evidence. Boelman, 522 N.W.2d at 76 (citing Iowa R.App.P. 14(f)(1)). Evidence is substantial for purposes of sustaining a finding of fact when a reasonable mind would accept it as adequate to reach a conclusion. Hamer v. Iowa Civil Rights Comm'n, 472 N.W.2d 259, 261 (Iowa 1991). When reviewing evidence for its substantiality, we view it in the light most favorable to upholding the trial court's judgment. Boelman, 522 N.W.2d at 76.

Moreover, when the trial court following a bench trial has denied recovery because a party failed to sustain its burden of proof on an issue, we will not interfere with the trial court's judgment unless we find the party has carried its burden as a matter of law. Schmitz v. Crotty, 528 N.W.2d 112, 115 (Iowa 1995) (citation omitted); see also Hamer, 472 N.W.2d at 261. We will conclude a party has carried such a burden only when evidence is so overwhelming that only one reasonable inference on each critical fact issue can be drawn. Schmitz, 528 N.W.2d at 115.

We are not bound, however, by the trial court's application of legal principles or its conclusions of law. Vaughn v. Ag Processing, Inc., 459 N.W.2d 627, 632 (Iowa 1990) (citation omitted). When the trial court has applied erroneous rules of law which materially affected its decision, we will reverse. See Blunt, Ellis & Loewi, Inc. v. Igram, 319 N.W.2d 189, 192 (Iowa 1982).

III. National origin discrimination claims. Plaintiff first contends that her former employer, defendant Amoco, terminated her employment with it for the discriminatory reason of her Polish origin. The plaintiff bases her national origin discrimination claims on the Iowa civil rights act,...

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64 practice notes
  • Soto v. John Morrell & Co., No. C02-4029-MWB.
    • United States
    • United States District Courts. 8th Circuit. Northern District of Iowa
    • October 6, 2003
    ...claims under Title VII and under the Iowa Civil Rights Act using the same legal principles.")(citing Falczynski v. Amoco Oil Co., 533 N.W.2d 226, 230 & n. 2 (Iowa 1995)). This is predicated on the fact that the Iowa Supreme Court has recognized that federal precedent is applicable ......
  • Garang v. Smithfield Farmland Corp., No. C18-4082-LTS
    • United States
    • United States District Courts. 8th Circuit. Northern District of Iowa
    • February 12, 2020
    ...the analysis has focused on the plaintiff's qualifications rather than the employer's expectations. See Falczynski v. Amoco Oil Co. , 533 N.W.2d 226, 231 (Iowa 1995) (plaintiff's excessive absenteeism prevented her from being able to "perform the essential functions of the job" an......
  • Pippen v. State, No. 12-0913
    • United States
    • United States State Supreme Court of Iowa
    • July 18, 2014
    ...of errors at law and for findings of fact not supported by substantial evidence. Iowa R. App. P. 6.907; Falczynski v. Amoco Oil Co., 533 N.W.2d 226, 230 (Iowa 1995). "Evidence isPage 11substantial for purposes of sustaining a finding of fact when a reasonable mind would accept it as ad......
  • Peda v. American Home Products Corp., No. C01-3020-MWB.
    • United States
    • United States District Courts. 8th Circuit. Northern District of Iowa
    • June 20, 2002
    ...claims under Title VII and under the Iowa Civil Rights Act using the same legal principles") (citing Falczynski v. Amoco Oil Co., 533 N.W.2d 226, 230 n. 2 (Iowa 1995)). This is appropriate because the Iowa Supreme Court has recognized that federal precedent is applicable to discriminat......
  • Request a trial to view additional results
64 cases
  • Soto v. John Morrell & Co., No. C02-4029-MWB.
    • United States
    • United States District Courts. 8th Circuit. Northern District of Iowa
    • October 6, 2003
    ...claims under Title VII and under the Iowa Civil Rights Act using the same legal principles.")(citing Falczynski v. Amoco Oil Co., 533 N.W.2d 226, 230 & n. 2 (Iowa 1995)). This is predicated on the fact that the Iowa Supreme Court has recognized that federal precedent is applicable ......
  • Garang v. Smithfield Farmland Corp., No. C18-4082-LTS
    • United States
    • United States District Courts. 8th Circuit. Northern District of Iowa
    • February 12, 2020
    ...the analysis has focused on the plaintiff's qualifications rather than the employer's expectations. See Falczynski v. Amoco Oil Co. , 533 N.W.2d 226, 231 (Iowa 1995) (plaintiff's excessive absenteeism prevented her from being able to "perform the essential functions of the job" an......
  • Pippen v. State, No. 12-0913
    • United States
    • United States State Supreme Court of Iowa
    • July 18, 2014
    ...of errors at law and for findings of fact not supported by substantial evidence. Iowa R. App. P. 6.907; Falczynski v. Amoco Oil Co., 533 N.W.2d 226, 230 (Iowa 1995). "Evidence isPage 11substantial for purposes of sustaining a finding of fact when a reasonable mind would accept it as ad......
  • Peda v. American Home Products Corp., No. C01-3020-MWB.
    • United States
    • United States District Courts. 8th Circuit. Northern District of Iowa
    • June 20, 2002
    ...claims under Title VII and under the Iowa Civil Rights Act using the same legal principles") (citing Falczynski v. Amoco Oil Co., 533 N.W.2d 226, 230 n. 2 (Iowa 1995)). This is appropriate because the Iowa Supreme Court has recognized that federal precedent is applicable to discriminat......
  • Request a trial to view additional results

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