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Walker, Lovell recognized for civil rights victory in Iowa Supreme Court

March 5, 2014
Professors Lovell and Walker receive award

Drake Law faculty not only teach and produce scholarship but also engage in public service and public interest work, including the filing of Amicus Curiae (Friend of the Court) Briefs in important cases.

Professors David Walker and Russell Lovell led the NAACP litigation team (that also included NAACP General Counsel Kim Keenan and staff attorney Anson Asaka) that combined with Assistant Iowa Attorney General Katie Hlavka Fiala to achieve an important victory on March 1 in the Iowa Supreme Court.

In an unanimous opinion, Iowa Civil Rights Commission (ICRC) v. Rent-a-Center (RAC), the Court reversed the District Court, and held, as the NAACP Amicus Curiae brief urged, that the Iowa Civil Rights Commission was not bound by the arbitration clause in the pre-employment contract that RAC required as a condition of employment because the Commission was not a party to it.

The Court held that while the RAC arbitration clause was binding on the employee who signed it, it was not binding on the ICRC which had not signed the agreement. The Court held that the ICRC has an important public interest enforcement role under the Iowa Civil Rights Act that is above and beyond the individual interest of a person claiming discrimination, and therefore the ICRC could pursue an independent enforcement action through the agency and, if necessary, the Iowa courts. The Iowa Supreme held that the District Court had erred in holding that the ICRC was limited to arbitration.

The case involved Nicole Henry, an employee of Rent-A-Center who, as a condition of her employment, signed an agreement that any disputed employment-related matters that might arise with RAC would be arbitrated. After alleging Rent-A-Center discriminated against her because of her pregnancy, she filed a complaint with the ICRC. After reviewing the ICRC staff’s preliminary investigation, an ICRC administrative law judge concluded there was probable cause to believe that RAC had violated the Iowa Civil Rights Act by engaging in an act of sex discrimination. When the case could not be resolved through conciliation, the ICRC Director set the case for public hearing before the agency.

RAC then went to District Court and obtained an Order to Compel Arbitration.

The District Court concluded that the ICRC could not bring its action because the Federal Arbitration Act (FAA) preempted ICRC enforcement, thereby requiring the ICRC to proceed before an arbitrator. The Iowa Supreme Court reversed and remanded the case back to the district court, finding that the ICRC was not bound by the arbitration agreement, and could therefore bring an independent public enforcement action against the employer.

Although Nicole Henry’s claim did not involve race discrimination, the NAACP became involved because her case presented an important civil rights enforcement issue that will impact every state civil rights agency and those of many local jurisdictions. The Washington Times on line analysis of the Iowa Supreme Court’s ruling specifically mentioned the NAACP Amicus Brief’s discussion of the impact of such arbitration clauses, noting that some estimates nationally are that there are as many as 130 million non-union employees and that employers’ use of mandatory arbitration clauses in employment agreements may cover as many as 30 million people.

Read the article in the Washington Times

Because the case involves resolution of a federal law issue, the applicability of the Federal Arbitration Act to state civil rights enforcement agencies, it is conceivable that RAC will seek to have the Iowa Supreme Court ruling reviewed by the United States Supreme Court. Should the U.S. Supreme Court grant certiorari and review the case, Professors Walker and Lovell intend to file an Amicus Curiae Brief on behalf of the NAACP in the Court.

The public service efforts of Professors Walker and Lovell, including their Amicus Brief in the ICRC v. RAC case, were recognized last fall by the Des Moines NAACP. At its 38th Annual NAACP Freedom Fund Banquet on November 1, Iowa-Nebraska State Conference and Des Moines Branch President Arnold Woods recognized “the outstanding leadership of longtime co-chairs and civil rights advocates Drake University law professors Russ Lovell and David Walker,” who co-chair the Des Moines NAACP Legal Redress Committee.

The President’s Committee of the Year Award was presented to Professors Lovell and Walker with a plaque that reads: “Your dedication to the legal system, training future lawyers, community activities and collaboration with a host of other volunteers, and legal representation at the local, state and national levels have served us all immeasurably. Your success was demonstrated again this year by the filing of the Amicus Briefs in two cases [including ICRC v. Rent-a-Center], and discussions with the Iowa Civil Rights Commission regarding investigative procedures and findings.”

The plaque hangs prominently in the Drake Legal Clinic where Professors Lovell and Walker office, and where the NAACP Legal Redress Committee regularly meets.