June 24, 2013

Iowa Supreme Court reaffirms that punitive damages are not available in civil rights cases

Last Friday, the Iowa Supreme Court issued this opinion (Ackelson v. Manley Toy Direct), reaffirming the court's earlier ruling that punitive damages are not available in sexual harassment and gender discrimination cases brought under the Iowa Civil Rights Act: 

We have clearly and repeatedly stated our conclusion that the ICRA does not implicitly permit an award of punitive damages. This message has been a reoccurring pronouncement over the last twenty-seven years. No significant legislative changes have been made since our first pronouncement in 1986 that would even hint at a shift in legislative intent since that time.

During this same period, the issue of punitive damages in civil rights claims has received broad national attention, making it very likely that our legislature would have taken action to alter our interpretation if it disapproved.  . . . Overall, we think our legislature would be quite surprised to learn if we decided to reverse course and take a different position under the guise of statutory interpretation. We did our job twenty-seven years ago and will leave it for the legislature to take any different approach.
That excerpt certainly creates the impression that this issue has been settled in Iowa for quite some time (twenty-seven years, to be precise).  Apparently, however, Iowa's trial courts had not gotten that message.  This Associated Press story in the Globe Gazette reports that "trial judges had been allowing punitive damages in civil rights cases," according to a local plaintiffs' attorney.  Presumably that will change now.