New Law Codifying Health and Religious Vaccine Exemptions May Create Wrongful Discharge Exposure

October 29, 2021

By: Frank Harty

Effective today, October 29, 2021, Iowa has enacted a new law codifying extremely broad health and religious exemptions from employer mandates of COVID-19 vaccination for their workforces, guaranteeing unemployment compensation – and arguably creating a new “public policy” which will serve as the basis for claims of wrongful discharge. Nyemaster has discussed the details of the new law elsewhere. In summary, the new law requires employers who mandate employee COVID-19 vaccinations to “waive” the vaccine requirement if the employee furnishes either of the following statements: (1) receiving the vaccine would be “injurious” to the health and well-being of the employee “or an individual residing with the employee”; or (2) receiving the vaccine would conflict with the tenets and practices of a religion to which the employee is an adherent or member. In this post we examine whether the law creates a public policy wrongful discharge risk.


Simply stated, new Iowa Code § 94.1 and § 94.2 essentially allows anyone to refuse a vaccine for any reason. The employer is required to let them do so. In fact, one could argue that terminating someone who provides a waiver not only exposes the employer to liability for jobless benefits, but also to what is sometimes called a “Springer claim.” The law arguably provides the basis for an employee who has been fired following a denial of a “waiver” from an employer COVID-19 vaccination mandate after providing a statement consistent with the new statute to institute a legal action for wrongful termination in violation of public policy because Section 94.2(1) is the “policy” of the state.


Four decades ago, in Abrisz v. Pulley Freight Lines, Inc., 270 N.W.2d 454,455 (Iowa 1978), the Iowa Supreme Court declared that under proper circumstances it would recognize a common law claim for wrongful discharge in contradiction of public policy. See Niblo v. Parr Mfr., Inc., 445 N.W.2d 351 (Iowa 1989). More recently, the court adopted the public policy exception and applied it in a case where the discharge was allegedly the result of a workers' compensation claim. Springer v. Weeks & Leo Co., 429 N.W.2d 558, 560-61 (Iowa 1988).


In Springer, the court held that an at-will employee allegedly terminated for pursuing the statutory right to workers' compensation could assert an action for wrongful discharge. See Springer v. Weeks & Leo Co., Inc., 429 N.W.2d 558, 560-61 (Iowa 1988). Springer involved a claim of retaliatory discharge. The plaintiff received workers' compensation benefits while on leave following surgery to correct work-related carpal tunnel syndrome. The plaintiff testified at trial that her employer refused to allow her to return to work until she signed a document stating that her carpal tunnel syndrome problems were not work related. The plaintiff refused and was ultimately discharged. The trial court directed a verdict in favor of the defendant on the ground that the plaintiff was an at-will employee and could be discharged for any reason. The Supreme Court reversed the decision, holding that an action would sound in tort where an employee is discharged for filing a workers' compensation claim.


The court emphasized that its decision in Springer involved a discharge that was alleged to be in violation of a "clear expression" of a public policy of the state. The court stated: "We believe a cause of action should exist for tortious interference with the contract of hire when the discharge serves to frustrate a well-recognized and defined public policy of the state." Springer v. Weeks & Leo Co., Inc., 429 N.W.2d 558, 560-61 (Iowa 1988). The court cited examples of courts from other jurisdictions granting remedies for the discharge of at-will employees for reasons deemed contrary to public policy. Each of the decisions cited in Springer involve alleged violations of clearly expressed public policies. See Petermann v. International Bhd. of Teamsters, 174 Cal. App. 2d 184, 188-89 344 P.2d 25, 27 (1959) (discharge for refusal of employee to commit perjury at employer's behest); Parner v. Americana Hotels, 65 Haw. 370, 379-80, 652 P.2d 625, 631 (1982) (discharge of employee for cooperation with grand jury investigating employer's anticompetitive business practices); Palmateer v. International Harvester Col, 85 Ill. 2d 124, 130, 421 N.E.2d 876, 879-80 (1981) (discharge of employee for supplying law enforcement authorities with information concerning criminal acts of co-employee); Monge v. Beebe Rubber Co., 114 N.H. 130, 133, 316 A. 2d 549, 551 (1974) (discharge of employee for refusal to submit to supervisor's sexual advances); Nees v. Hocks, 272 Or. 210, 218-19, 536 P. 2d 512, 514-15 (1975) (discharge of employee for serving on a jury).


In Niblo v. Parr Mafr. Inc., 445 N.W.2d 351 (Iowa 1989), the Iowa Supreme Court extended the Springer doctrine to cases in which the plaintiff-employee is discharged for threatening to file a workers' compensation claim.


The Supreme Court has refused to recognize a common law tort action for retaliatory discharge except where the employer's conduct offends a “clearly articulated” public policy of the state. Wilcox v. Hy-Vee Food Stores, Inc., 458 N.W.2d 870,872 (Iowa App. 1990); see also Conaway v. Webster City Products Co., 431 N.W.2d 795 (Iowa 1988).


Although Iowa’s Unemployment Compensation law prohibits the use of an unemployment benefit claim outcome to serve as the basis for a wrongful discharge suit, the prohibition only extends to findings and determinations. See Iowa Code § 96.6(4) (2021). Plaintiff could arguably assert a wrongful discharge claim based on the expression of “public policy” in the new law without relying upon a jobless benefit claim outcome.


The law penalizes only the employer that made the decision to terminate an unvaccinated employee. One could claim that clearly expresses the public policy of the legislature.


Iowa’s new law is on a direct collision course with federal vaccine mandates. The legal issues related to the law will be addressed elsewhere.