Iowa Supreme Court Overturns $790K Harassment Award

Inappropriate comments by a superior to a social worker and between other employees at the state Department of Human Services did not justify a $790,000 jury award for sexual harassment, the Iowa Supreme Court has ruled.

Friday’s ruling reversed a lower court’s verdict for Tracy White, a social work administrator and manager who sued the state agency in 2019, alleging a pervasive pattern of harassment and sexual conduct, the Des Moines Register reported.

Her lawsuit alleged lewd and graphic remarks by others in the office, including a superior joking about her wearing leather and whipping him; managers showing favoritism for more attractive and less assertive female employees; and a sexually charged atmosphere in which workers called women “eye candy” and joked about the tightness of their clothing.

White, who continued to work for the department after filing suit, testified in a 2021 trial that she suffered depression, shingles and other effects of stress related to a hostile work environment.

A jury awarded her $260,000 for past harms and $530,000 for future harm.

But the Supreme Court ruled that White failed to prove that the alleged misconduct she personally experienced was “severe or pervasive enough,” and that much of it involved alleged harassment of other employees, not her.

It said White heard many of the details for the first time when the jury did, and Justice Thomas Waterman wrote that “well settled” law prevents plaintiffs from relying on “me-too” evidence of which they were not aware.

White’s attorney, Paige Fiedler, said in an email to the Des Moines Register that her client remains grateful to the jurors who sided with her, and she accused the Supreme Court of a pattern of disregarding evidence and overriding juries’ factual findings.

“When judges choose not to follow legal precedent, they normally overrule it or explain why it doesn’t apply. They are not supposed to simply omit any mention of prior cases that contradict their ruling,” Fiedler wrote.