Too hot v. not: The rest of the story

Iowa Employment and Labor Law Dickinson Law Firm Des Moines, Iowa

Posted on 12/22/2010 at 09:50 AM by The Newsroom

Since we discussed Lewis v. Heartland Inns of America, L.L.C., et al. No. 083860 (8th Circuit, January 21, 2010) in some detail in a previous blog post and at our Employment Law Client Seminar in October, we want to give you the rest of the story.  Brenna Lewis sued Heartland Inn, claiming discrimination based on sexual stereotypes and also claiming retaliation.  Lewis, who had an 'Ellen Degeneres kind of look,' was replaced by a woman who dressed more femininely and had a 'Midwestern girl look.'  She was fired after she complained about the comments, among other things.  The district court had granted summary judgment in favor of Heartland Inn, but the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals reversed and remanded the case to the district court to proceed to trial.  In its Order, the court reasoned:

an employer who discriminates against women because . . . they do not wear dresses or makeup, is engaging in sex discrimination because the discrimination would not occur but for the victim's sex.

Trial was held in federal court for five days in November in the Southern District of Iowa (Des Moines).  The jury rejected Lewis's claim of sex stereotyping, but found in favor of Lewis on her retaliation claim, awarding $1,800 in lost wages, $19,000 in emotional distress, and $30,000 in punitive damages.  Plaintiff is also entitled to an award of attorney fees and costs, and has requested the court award $136,000 in attorney fees and $13,350 in costs. The judge has not yet ruled on the motion. The outcome of this case exemplifies what we have told Iowa employers repeatedly: even if the underlying claim is without merit, there is great risk of a retaliation claim succeeding if employee complaints of discrimination or harassment are not handled properly.  To avoid retaliation claims, Iowa employers are encouraged to contact their employment law attorneys when responding to workplace complaints of discrimination or harassment.  

The material in this blog is not intended, nor should it be construed or relied upon, as legal advice. Please consult with an attorney if specific legal information is needed.


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