The law firm is striving to create a culture within its own workplace focused on family and fun as well as hard work. Photo by Duane Tinkey
Complying with Family and Medical Leave Act
The Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) applies to employees who work for the government or a company with 50 or more employees; and when the employee has worked for the organization for at least one year.
Under the act, eligible employees can take up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave per year because of their own or a family member’s serious health condition or because the employee has become a mother or a father.
Employers cannot retaliate against employees because they have taken FMLA leave or have tried to do so. One common violation is to count the leave against employees’ so-called no-fault attendance policy.
The Des Moines-area attorneys representing a Fort Dodge dental assistant who lost her job for being “irresistible” say the case is certainly their biggest, but it’s not necessarily unusual for them.
The Urbandale firm Fiedler & Timmer PLLC is representing Melissa Nelson, who was fired by her boss, James Knight, in 2010 because he found her too attractive and believed she was a detriment to his marriage. Nelson, who worked for Knight for 10 years, received one month’s salary as severance pay.
After the case made its way through the state court system, the Iowa Supreme Court ruled in late December that Knight’s decision did not constitute sex discrimination under the Iowa Civil Rights Act. Attorneys Paige Fiedler and Brooke Timmer, who represent Nelson, have since filed for a rehearing, which is the only legal avenue Nelson has left.
The case has garnered plenty of national media attention, being picked up by networks like CNN and ABC News.
But Nelson isn’t alone in her situation. Discrimination in the workplace is Fiedler & Timmer’s bread and butter. Whether the discrimination is alleged to be because of age, sex, race or sexual orientation, the predominantly female law firm has its hands full representing men and women who believe they have been fired unjustly or harassed.
The lawyers aren’t discouraged by the Supreme Court’s ruling in the Nelson case.
“(The ruling) could make things harder for us, but having this discussion publicly is always a good thing,” Fiedler said. “I hope it’s beneficial.”
Other newsworthy cases
The firm has handled other cases that have caught a national spotlight as well, including those of Kristine Sink and Kyle Dowie.
Sink, an Iowa corrections officer, filed a lawsuit last November against prison officials. She alleges that administrators allowed inmates to watch sexual and violent movies, which encouraged inmates to harass her.
Dowie, a mentally disabled employee at Hy-Vee Inc., was fired after cashing 20 cents worth of bottle deposits that were left behind by customers last January. Publicity about the case generated a national backlash of criticism of Hy-Vee, and the supermarket chain later offered to rehire Dowie.
The law firm also handles cases pertaining to the Family and Medical Leave Act of 1993 (FMLA) as well as allegations of retaliation. Retaliation is when an employer punishes a worker for taking a specific action, such as reporting sexual harassment to human resources. Timmer said she believes the number of retaliation cases are increasing.
“People are no longer afraid to vocalize that they’re being treated poorly,” she said. “But then they’re turned on. (Bosses and co-workers) start to look at that person differently.”
The firm’s partners, who are both moms, believe Iowa needs a state equivalent to the federal law that protects an employee’s job for up to 12 weeks a year when he or she is dealing with a family medical issue or taking care of young children.
Because there is no Iowa equivalent, workers at companies with fewer than 50 employees don’t have the same kind of job security, as those at larger firms that must follow federal law, Timmer said.
“We’re going to continue fighting these fights and continue to make good law,” she said.
Practicing what they preach
The environment they’re fighting for in the courtroom is one they strive to create in their own office. The women have built a work culture focused on families and fun as well as hard work.
The firm takes office-wide trips together, staying at the Bellagio hotel in Las Vegas and spending a weekend at Riverside Casino & Golf Resort for its annual Christmas party.
“We want it to be a fun place to work,” Fiedler said. “These trips build cohesiveness because we’re sharing the same experiences outside of work.”
Timmer, whose second child, Alice, was playing a few rooms away, said if necessary, employees can bring their babies and even dogs to work. The firm also makes sure new moms have the flexibility to accomplish their work goals while juggling family responsibilities.
The law firm, which is made up of four attorneys, two paralegals, a file clerk and a law clerk, is almost all women -- something Fiedler said happened accidentally. Men have worked at the office in various capacities over the years; one was even a partner.
“What I love about our firm is that I feel like we have the ability to make change,” Timmer said.