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State

Iowa exhausts appeals in worker lawsuit; costs could top $1M

DES MOINES (AP) — Iowa has exhausted its challenges to a lawsuit filed by a former state employee who said an agency fired him because of a work injury, and the costs to the state could top $1 million.

The Iowa Supreme Court on Nov. 9 declined to hear an appeal from the state connected to a 2013 lawsuit filed by former Iowa Department of Natural Resources worker John Vetter. The move affirms a May 2017 ruling from the lower Iowa Court of Appeals that sided with Vetter.

Vetter alleged he was fired in 2013 after a work-related injury to his back that dated back to 2011. He had worked at the agency since 1976.

Following a 2015 trial, a jury agreed with Vetter and a district court judge ordered Iowa to pay more than $930,000. The state appealed all the way to the high court.

The judge must now determine final costs associated with the appeal, though it’s unclear when that will happen. A hearing has not been scheduled.

Vetter’s lawyers say new expenses like interest and attorneys’ fees have increased the total due to more than $1 million. A spokesman for the attorney general’s office declined to comment on the case.

Whatever the total, the money is expected to come from the state’s general fund.

Several employment discrimination lawsuits this year have included seven-figure payouts in favor of the ex-workers. In May, the University of Iowa agreed to pay $6.5 million to settle lawsuits filed by former ex-athletic administrator Jane Meyer and her partner, former women’s field hockey coach Tracey Griesbaum.

In July, a jury ordered a private hospital in Grinnell to pay $4.5 million to Gregory Hawkins, a former employee who said he was fired after he was diagnosed with cancer. The hospital, Grinnell Regional Medical Center, has appealed.

In September, the state agreed to pay $1.75 million to a former communications director for Iowa Senate Republicans. A jury sided with Kirsten Anderson, who said she was fired after reporting sexual misconduct in the workplace that included inappropriate comments. The jury awarded $2.2 million, which was slightly lowered as part of a settlement.

Vetter worked for the State Forest Nursery in Ames for more than three decades as a natural resources technician. After a work injury in 2011, he underwent spinal surgery and his doctor issued permanent work restrictions on how much he should lift, sit, stand and walk at work. He was placed on involuntary medical leave after supervisors said his restrictions prevented him from performing his job. They also said there were no reasonable accommodations that could allow him to keep his job. He was fired in 2013.

Vetter’s attorneys argued there was a breakdown in communication between DNR supervisors over Vetter’s job responsibilities and whether his work restrictions affected his ability to perform them. Vetter said his supervisors never asked him about it. A DNR official publicly apologized to Vetter during testimony in the trial, which Vetter’s attorneys said was not usual.

Brooke Timmer, an attorney for Vetter who also represented the ex-hospital worker, said the dollar figures resulting from these cases send a message.

“I think there’s a recognition by Iowa juries that there’s real harm that occurs when you’re discriminated against,” she said.

Vetter, now 67, said in a phone interview from his home in Boone that the case had weighed on him for years.

“To me it was closure,” he said of the state supreme court’s action this month. “I’m finally glad it’s over. I did nothing wrong. It was the state that did wrong. And I’m happy that the jury and the judges felt that way also.”

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