Court Case: David Johnson v. University of Iowa, et al.

Case History

David Johnson, a clerk in the registrar’s office at the University of Iowa, sued the university and its state board of regents for sex discrimination in violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Equal Protection Clause of the U.S. Constitution, and Iowa state laws. He also sued the university’s president, vice president for finance and operations, and associate vice president for the department of human resources for §1983 violations.

Johnson has been employed by the University of Iowa since 1999. At all times during his employment, he has been able to accrue paid sick leave. In October 2002, Johnson and his wife — who is also an employee of the university — were anticipating the birth of their first child. At that time, Johnson had accrued five days of sick leave, which he wanted to use toward a parental leave of absence to assist his spouse with their new child. However, university officials informed Johnson that under the university’s parental paid leave policy for employees, biological fathers are not entitled to use sick leave to care for a new child and additionally, they must use either accrued vacation leave or unpaid leave in accordance with the federal Family Medical Leave Act for parental leave. Johnson ultimately took approximately two weeks of unpaid leave to care for his wife and newborn daughter.

The university policy entitles biological mothers to use up to six weeks of accrued sick leave for pregnancy-related temporary disabilities, and also permits adoptive male and female parents (including domestic partners) to use up to five days accrued sick leave to undertake an adoption. The university cites budgetary constraints as the primary reason why biological fathers cannot use sick leave toward parental leave. Furthermore, it asserts that adoptive parents have a stronger equitable claim than biological parents for using sick leave in preparation for the arrival of a new child because costs associated with adoption exceed those associated with childbirth.

Johnson claims that biological fathers are the only category of parent-employees at the university who are restricted from using accrued sick leave toward parental leave. He argues that under the parental leave policy, all female parent-employees are entitled to use accrued sick leave in some form, whereas only those male parent-employees who are adoptive parents can have this opportunity.

Johnson filed a complaint in federal court in June 2003, and the court granted Johnson’s motion for class certification In November of that year. The class includes all persons at the University of Iowa who have been, who are, or who may become biological fathers and who have been, who are, or who may be subject to the parental leave policy in question as employees of the university. In December 2004, the court granted the defendants’ motion for summary judgment in its entirety, dismissing Johnson’s case. Johnson appealed the decision to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 8th Circuit. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the 8th Circuit heard oral arguments on Sept. 13, 2005, on whether to reverse the lower courts summary judgement. The court ruled in favor of the university on December 16, 2005. Johnson decided not to appeal, however, he is continuing to battle within university channels to have the policy changed.

LAF believes that Johnson’s case could have had a positive impact on working mothers, in higher education and elsewhere, who often carry the majority of child rearing responsibilities. If the university’s policy is a caregiving leave policy, the benefits should be provided to both new mothers and fathers so that both can share in these responsibilities, which will ultimately help to eliminate the sex stereotypes associated with child care that can be damaging to women’s careers.

Key Issues

Sex discrimination in the terms and conditions of employment in violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.