Vincent v. Four M Paper Corp., No. 96-234

CourtUnited States State Supreme Court of Iowa
Writing for the CourtSNELL
Citation589 N.W.2d 55
PartiesRusty VINCENT, Appellant, v. FOUR M PAPER CORPORATION, Appellee.
Decision Date17 February 1999
Docket NumberNo. 96-234

Page 55

589 N.W.2d 55
Rusty VINCENT, Appellant,
v.
FOUR M PAPER CORPORATION, Appellee.
No. 96-234.
Supreme Court of Iowa.
Feb. 17, 1999.

Page 57

Terry D. Loeschen and John M. Loeschen of Loeschen & Loeschen, Burlington, and Robert N. Johnson III of Saunders, Humphrey & Johnson, Fort Madison, for appellant.

Kelly R. Baier and Melissa Weets Anderson of Bradley & Riley, P.C., Cedar Rapids, for appellee.

Considered by CARTER, P.J., and LAVORATO, NEUMAN, SNELL, and CADY, JJ.

SNELL, Justice.

Plaintiff appeals from district court judgment entered for defendant following nonjury trial on his claim of disability discrimination under the Iowa Civil Rights Act. We find no error in the district court judgment and therefore affirm.

I. Factual and Procedural Background

Plaintiff Rusty Vincent began working at Consolidated Packaging Corporation (CPC), a paper mill in Fort Madison, in 1974. By 1981 he had been promoted to the position of machine tender, the highest paying production job at the mill. In the summer of 1993 the mill was inundated by flood waters of the Mississippi River, which caused significant damage. CPC suspended operations and closed the plant for repairs. Most employees, including Vincent, were laid off. During the layoff, on August 15, 1993, Vincent suffered a ruptured brain aneurysm, resulting in an intra-cranial hemorrhage. He underwent successful surgery on August 31, 1993, to relieve the hemorrhage and repair the damage to his brain. Dr. Matthew Howard, Vincent's surgeon, discharged Vincent from the hospital on September 23, 1993. Vincent was given a prescription for phenobarbital, an anti-seizure medication which can cause drowsiness and affect balance. Dr. Howard advised Vincent he would not issue him a medical release to return to work until six months had passed.

On September 27, 1993, CPC recalled some employees from layoff status, including Vincent, to operate the mill on a limited basis. Vincent did not return to work at that time as he had not yet received a medical release. Vincent's position as machine tender was filled by another employee. Dennis O'Brien, CPC's director of human resources, changed Vincent's status from laid-off to medical leave to enable Vincent to receive weekly medical benefit payments.

In October 1993, Vincent visited CPC offices and met with O'Brien to discuss his condition. Vincent told O'Brien about the six-month recuperation period required by his doctor before he would be able to return to work. O'Brien noted that Vincent spoke more slowly than prior to his illness and had a limp. Vincent told O'Brien that he was experiencing trouble with his speech, weakness and problems with his leg falling asleep.

In early December 1993, Four M Paper Corporation (Four M) announced its intent to offer to purchase the assets of CPC. On December 7, 1993, O'Brien distributed a letter to all CPC employees informing them of the upcoming sale and its effect on their positions. The letter informed the employees that if they wished to work for Four M after the sale, they must return completed application forms by December 13, 1993. When Vincent received the letter, he visited Dr. Howard and asked to receive a medical release to resume work. Vincent and Dr. Howard did not discuss the job requirements of his position as machine tender. Nevertheless, Dr. Howard wrote Vincent a note which stated that Vincent "is now medically released to resume work. If he has difficulty with his work load this release will be reassessed."

On December 10, 1993, Vincent visited the mill with the release from Dr. Howard and declared himself available to work. When O'Brien heard about the release, he instructed the plant supervisor not to allow Vincent to resume work until O'Brien had seen him. O'Brien testified that based on their October meeting he believed Vincent would not be able to resume work for approximately two

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more months and he was concerned about his safety.

On December 13, 1993, O'Brien called Dr. Howard about the medical release and voiced his concerns. O'Brien described the job requirements of the machine tender position, 1 and inquired as to whether Dr. Howard believed Vincent would be able to work in such a physically demanding position without posing a danger to himself or others. Dr. Howard replied that at the time he wrote the release he was unaware of the nature of Vincent's job. Vincent met with O'Brien later that day and phoned Dr. Howard, who explained he intended to rescind the medical release based on this new information about Vincent's position. Vincent informed O'Brien that the release had been rescinded and resumed his medical leave status. At that time, Vincent did not request any sort of accommodation to enable him to return to his position as machine tender; nor did he request to be placed in a less dangerous and physically demanding position.

In late December 1993, contract negotiations occurred between Four M and the workers' union. The terms of the contract provided that Four M would hire all currently working CPC employees and would rehire all CPC employees still on layoff status. With regard to CPC employees currently on medical leave, the terms required Four M to give those employees first consideration for employment as a new hire once the employee showed Four M an unrestricted medical release. Regarding seniority, the contract provided that employees currently working for CPC on January 5 would have a date of hire for seniority purposes of January 6. Former CPC employees on layoff status on January 5 would have a date of hire of January 7 for seniority purposes. For all other hires, including those returning from medical leave, the date of hire for seniority purposes would be their first working day.

Following the completion of negotiations and ratification of the contract but before Four M assumed operation of the mill, Vincent called Bill Smith, the plant manager. He asked Smith whether he could start work on January 6 to save his seniority status if he could obtain a medical release from his doctor before that time. Smith allegedly replied that Vincent could not yet return to work because he was "too sick to work." Vincent then requested that he be placed in any position "to save my 19 years of seniority" and Smith replied there was nothing the company could do.

The purchase of CPC by Four M was completed on January 6, 1994. Vincent was not hired at that time, but continued on medical leave. On February 22, 1994, Dr. Howard gave Vincent an unrestricted medical release. On March 2, 1994, Four M hired Vincent as a member of the labor pool. His position as machine tender had been filled. Vincent's position paid $11.20 per hour, in contrast to the machine tender rate of $14.52 per hour. In addition, his seniority status was below that of most other Four M employees despite his nearly twenty years of working at the mill.

On July 5, 1994, Vincent filed a claim against Four M with the Iowa Civil Rights Commission (ICRC), alleging disability discrimination. On October 10, 1994, the ICRC issued an administrative closure notice, see Iowa Admin. Code r. 161-3.12(2)(a), (3), indicating there was "insufficient information to warrant further investigation and that further processing would not indicate that [Four M's] reasons are a pretense for discrimination." On June 26, 1995, the ICRC issued Vincent an administrative release or right-to-sue letter. See Iowa Code § 216.16 (1993); Iowa Admin. Code r. 161-3.10(1), (3).

On September 22, 1995, Vincent filed a petition in district court against Four M alleging discrimination in employment based on a disability in violation of the Iowa Civil Rights Act (ICRA). 2 See Iowa Code § 216.6.

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Vincent sought damages for back pay and reimbursement of out-of-pocket expenses for medication and counseling necessitated by the emotional distress he suffered as a result of his employment situation. He also sought either reinstatement to his old position or front pay, and reinstatement of his seniority status. Following a bench trial, the court entered judgment in favor of Four M. Vincent appeals.

II. Issues on Appeal

Vincent contends the district court erred in concluding he was not disabled or regarded as disabled by Four M. He also argues that Four M's policy requiring a medical release or that the employee be 100% healed before he or she may resume work is a per se violation of the ICRA. 3 He further maintains the district court failed to conduct an individualized inquiry with regard to his claim that a reasonable accommodation could have been made to enable him to resume his job prior to his medical release.

Four M responds that Vincent's temporary inability to work near dangerous machinery is not a disability within the meaning of the ICRA because it did not substantially impair any major life activity. Four M also maintains Vincent's accommodation argument should be rejected because he did not request an accommodation at any time. Finally, Four M argues Vincent's claim that the provision in the collective bargaining agreement on hiring those on medical leave is a per se violation of the ICRA is without merit. It asserts that the provision does not refer to disability, but only made employment with Four M on the day of the takeover and seniority status dependent upon availability for work. Alternatively, Four M suggests Vincent lacks standing to challenge the alleged per se violation because he is not disabled.

III. Scope of Review

Our review of a disability discrimination claim tried to the court is for the correction of errors of law. Iowa R.App. P. 4; Fuller v. Iowa Dep't of Human Servs., 576 N.W.2d 324, 328 (Iowa 1998); Boelman v. Manson State Bank, 522 N.W.2d 73, 76 (Iowa 1994). We are bound by the trial court's findings of fact if they are supported by substantial evidence. Iowa R.App. P. 14(f)(1). "Evidence is substantial when a reasonable mind would accept it as adequate to reach a...

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25 practice notes
  • Loeckle v. State Farm Auto. Ins. Co., No. C98-3025-MWB.
    • United States
    • United States District Courts. 8th Circuit. Northern District of Iowa
    • July 28, 1999
    ...the discharge of an employee because of that employee's perceived disability. See IOWA CODE 216.6; Vincent v. Four M Paper Corp., 589 N.W.2d 55, 63 (Iowa 1999) (holding that "[t]he plaintiff must establish that the defendant failed to make the employment decision based on an individualized ......
  • Wheaton v. Ogden Newspapers, Inc., No. C98-3029MWB.
    • United States
    • United States District Courts. 8th Circuit. Northern District of Iowa
    • October 8, 1999
    ...the plaintiff can show that he or she is a disabled person subject to protection under Iowa Code § 216.6. Vincent v. Four M Paper Corp., 589 N.W.2d 55, 60 (Iowa 1999); Falczynski v. Amoco Oil Co., 533 N.W.2d 226, 234 (Iowa 1995); Miller v. Sioux Gateway Fire Dep't, 497 N.W.2d 838, 841 (Iowa......
  • Cole v. Wells Fargo Bank, No. 4:06-CV-00086-JEG.
    • United States
    • United States District Courts. 8th Circuit. United States State District Court of Southern District of Iowa
    • July 11, 2006
    ...515, 519 (Iowa 2003); accord Schlitzer v. Univ. of Iowa Hosps. & Clinics, 641 N.W.2d 525, 530 (Iowa 2002); Vincent v. Four M Paper Corp., 589 N.W.2d 55, 60 (Iowa 1999); Boelman v. Manson State Bank, 522 N.W.2d 73, 79 (Iowa b. Religious Discrimination. Wells Fargo also allegedly violated the......
  • Pippen v. State, No. 12–0913.
    • United States
    • United States State Supreme Court of Iowa
    • July 18, 2014
    ...the trial court's judgment unless we find the party has carried its burden as a matter of law.” Id.; see Vincent v. Four M Paper Corp., 589 N.W.2d 55, 62 (Iowa 1999). “We will conclude a party has carried such a burden only when evidence is so overwhelming that only one reasonable inference......
  • Request a trial to view additional results
25 cases
  • Wheaton v. Ogden Newspapers, Inc., No. C98-3029MWB.
    • United States
    • United States District Courts. 8th Circuit. Northern District of Iowa
    • October 8, 1999
    ...the plaintiff can show that he or she is a disabled person subject to protection under Iowa Code § 216.6. Vincent v. Four M Paper Corp., 589 N.W.2d 55, 60 (Iowa 1999); Falczynski v. Amoco Oil Co., 533 N.W.2d 226, 234 (Iowa 1995); Miller v. Sioux Gateway Fire Dep't, 497 N.W.2d 838, 841 (Iowa......
  • Cole v. Wells Fargo Bank, No. 4:06-CV-00086-JEG.
    • United States
    • United States District Courts. 8th Circuit. United States State District Court of Southern District of Iowa
    • July 11, 2006
    ...515, 519 (Iowa 2003); accord Schlitzer v. Univ. of Iowa Hosps. & Clinics, 641 N.W.2d 525, 530 (Iowa 2002); Vincent v. Four M Paper Corp., 589 N.W.2d 55, 60 (Iowa 1999); Boelman v. Manson State Bank, 522 N.W.2d 73, 79 (Iowa b. Religious Discrimination. Wells Fargo also allegedly violated the......
  • Pippen v. State, No. 12–0913.
    • United States
    • United States State Supreme Court of Iowa
    • July 18, 2014
    ...the trial court's judgment unless we find the party has carried its burden as a matter of law.” Id.; see Vincent v. Four M Paper Corp., 589 N.W.2d 55, 62 (Iowa 1999). “We will conclude a party has carried such a burden only when evidence is so overwhelming that only one reasonable inference......
  • Pippen v. State, No. 12-0913
    • United States
    • United States State Supreme Court of Iowa
    • July 18, 2014
    ...the trial court's judgment unless we find the party has carried its burden as a matter of law." Id.; see Vincent v. Four M Paper Corp., 589 N.W.2d 55, 62 (Iowa 1999). "We will conclude a party has carried such a burden only when evidence is so overwhelming that only one reasonable inference......
  • Request a trial to view additional results

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