Three women who worked for Muscatine, Iowa-based office furniture manufacturer Allsteel Inc. may proceed with a lawsuit that alleges wage discrimination, the Iowa Supreme Court said, but any damages will be limited to a two-year period.
Erin Dindinger, Lisa Loring and Elizabeth Freund sued Allsteel in October 2011, saying the company paid them less than men performing similar work. In the suit, they alleged violations of federal and state laws, including Iowa’s 2009 Equal Pay Act and the Iowa Civil Rights Act of 1965.
During proceedings, Judge Stephanie Rose sought clarification from the Iowa Supreme Court on whether the 2009 state law is retroactive, because some claims go back as far as 2000. Rose also sought clarification on whether the women may seek damages under the older Iowa Civil Rights Act and, if so, for what length of time.
The newly issued opinion concludes the 2009 law is not retroactive and applies only to occurrences after its July 1 effective date. The decision means the women may proceed with their case, but recover two to three times the difference in their wages and those of men in similar positions only from 2009 to 2011, when they filed suit.
In answering the second question, the Iowa Supreme Court concluded that workers may seek damages for wage discrimination under the Iowa Civil Rights Act, a broad law that prohibits discrimination in the workplace based on sex, religion, race and other characteristics. The act does not specifically mention wage discrimination but the justices said it is included since “payment of wages is a mainstay of any employment relationship.”
The law requires a complaint to be filed within 300 days after the alleged unfair practice occurred.
Dindinger and Loring argued that they should be able to recover wages for the entire time of the discrimination as long as at least one paycheck fell within the 300 days. Allsteel had asked the court to establish that employees must file a complaint within 300 days, which would mean the women filed too late and any claims under that section of Iowa law should be dismissed.
The justices concluded that each unequal paycheck an employee receives is a separate discriminatory practice, but limited recovery for unequal pay to within a 300-day period.
The decision means Dindinger, Loring and Freund may proceed toward trial, which attorney Ann Brown-Graff said was a certainty.
A spokesman for Allsteel, a division of HNI Corp., said the company plans to continue to fight the lawsuit.
“Our feeling is the case doesn’t really have any merit and we’ll continue to vigorously defend against it,” said Gary Carlson, vice president of community relations for HNI.
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