Have you recently lost your job? If so, you might be wondering whether you have grounds for a wrongful termination lawsuit against your former employer. In Iowa, as in other states, employees work at will. This means an employee can generally be fired at any time and for any reason, or for no reason at all.
But there are some exceptions to the at-will rule. If your Iowa employer fires you for discriminatory reasons, in violation of an employment contract, or in retaliation for exercising your rights, for example, you may have a legal claim against your employer for wrongful termination.
Every state’s laws on wrongful termination are different. This article covers some of the legal grounds you might have for suing your employer in Iowa for wrongful termination. But it’s not a comprehensive list of Iowa employment rights, which can change as courts issue new rulings and legislators pass or modify laws. To find out whether you have a legal claim for wrongful termination, speak to an experienced Iowa employment lawyer.
Under federal law, it is illegal for an employer to fire someone based on a protected characteristic, such as race or religion. Federal law prohibits employers from firing employees because of their race, color, national origin, sex, religion, age (if the employee is at least 40), disability, citizenship status, or genetic information. However, only employers with a minimum number of employees must comply with these laws. Most types of discrimination are prohibited once an employer has at least 15 employees; the minimum is 20 employees for age discrimination, and four employees for discrimination based on citizenship status.
Iowa law prohibits employment discrimination based on race, color, national origin, sex, religion, age (18 and older), disability, HIV/AIDS, genetic information, sexual orientation, or gender identity. A separate section of the state law specifically prohibits wage discrimination based on any of these protected traits. Iowa employers with at least four employees must comply with these laws.
These laws also make it illegal for an employer to retaliate against you for asserting your rights. For example, if you complain to your company’s HR department that you believe you were passed over for promotion because of your age, your employer may not discipline or fire you for your complaint. If you are fired for complaining of discrimination, participating in an investigation of a discrimination complaint (whether you or another employee made the complaint), or testifying in court, you have a retaliation claim against your former employer.
If you believe you were fired for discriminatory or retaliatory reasons, you must file a charge of discrimination with a government agency before you may proceed with a lawsuit. In Iowa, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) enforces federal laws prohibiting discrimination; you can find out where to file a complaint at the EEOC’s Field Offices page. The Iowa Civil Rights Commission enforces the state’s laws prohibiting discrimination.
Breach of Contract
If you have an employment contract promising you job security, you may not be an at-will employee. If, for example, you signed a written employment agreement stating that you could be fired only for good cause, you do not work at will. If your employer fired you without good cause, you have a legal claim for breach of contract. The same is true if, for example, your employer promised during your job interview that you would not be fired for the first year of your employment, but fired you sooner.
Fraud, Emotional Distress, or Other Tort Claims
Depending on the circumstances, you might be able to bring a “tort” (personal injury) lawsuit for wrongful termination. For example, some states allow fired employees to sue for fraud, violation of public policy, infliction of emotional distress, or other injuries. Which types of claims (if any) an employee can bring depends on decisions by state court judges, which means that the rules are always developing and changing. To find out whether you might have a valid tort claim in your particular situation, you’ll need to talk to an experienced employment lawyer.
Iowa Employment Protections
Under federal and Iowa law, an employer cannot fire employees for exercising workplace rights that are guaranteed by law. Some of these protections are outlined below; to learn more about Iowa employment law, contact the Iowa Labor Services Division.
Wage and Hour Issues
The minimum wage in Iowa is currently $7.25 an hour. Federal law and the laws of some states allow employers to pay tipped employees a lower minimum wage, as long as they earn enough in tips to make up the difference. In Iowa, employers can pay tipped employees an hourly wage of $4.35, as long as the employee’s tips bring the total hourly wage up to the state minimum wage.
Iowa has no state overtime law. Under federal law, employees who work more than 40 hours a week may be eligible for overtime. Not every type of job is eligible for overtime, however.
Although some states require employers to provide meal or rest breaks, Iowa is not one of them. However, federal law requires employers to pay for shorter employee breaks during the day (under 20 minutes). Employers also must pay their employees for any time during which they must work, even if the employer characterizes that time as a “break.”
Time Off Work
State and federal laws give employees the right to take time off work for certain civic obligations and personal responsibilities. Employers may not discipline or fire workers for exercising these rights. In Iowa, these rights include:
- Military leave. Under federal law, employees have the right to take up to five years of leave to serve in the military, with the right to be reinstated when they return to work. (This law also prohibits discrimination against employees based on their military service, protects employees from discharge without good cause for up to one year after they return from military duty, and provides other protections; see Nolo’s article Taking Military Leave for more information.) Iowa law also protects employees who are members of the Guard, reserves, military forces of the state, or civil air patrol. Employers may not discriminate against these employees or discharge them due to their military affiliations. In addition, these employees are entitled to take leave when called to federal or state temporary duty or service, and must be reinstated upon their return.
- Voting. Employers in Iowa must provide enough paid time off to give employees a total of three consecutive hours off work (when combined with the employee’s usual non-work hours) while polls are open. If an employee has three consecutive hours off while polls are open, the employer need not provide additional time.
- Jury duty. Employees are entitled to take unpaid leave for jury duty. Employers may not threaten or coerce an employee for receiving a notice or serving jury duty. Employers who fire or penalize an employee for jury service are subject to criminal penalties and special damages in a wrongful termination lawsuit.
- Family and medical leave. Iowa employees are protected by the federal Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA). This law gives eligible employees who work for larger employees the right to take up to 12 weeks off, unpaid, every year for their own serious health condition, to care for a family member with a serious health condition, to care for a new child, or to handle certain practical matters arising out of a family member’s military service; employees can take up to 26 weeks off in a single year to care for a family member who is seriously injured while serving in the military. Employees must be reinstated to the same position they previously held once their FMLA leave is over. State law also gives employees in Iowa the right to take up to eight weeks off while temporarily unable to work due to pregnancy, childbirth, and related conditions. See Nolo’s article Family and Medial Leave in Iowa to learn more.
What to Do Next
If you think you were fired illegally, talk to an Iowa employment lawyer. A lawyer can help you sort through the facts and assess the strength of any claims you may have against your former employer. A lawyer can explain your options and help you protect your rights, whether you decide to try to get your job back, negotiate a severance package, or take your former employer to court.