Judge: State must pay nearly $1 million in DNR worker's suit

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DES MOINES, Iowa (AP) — The state must pay nearly $1 million after losing a discrimination lawsuit filed by a longtime Iowa Department of Natural Resources employee who said he was fired because he sought disability accommodations for a job injury, according to court documents that also show the state tried to fight the award despite a public apology from an agency supervisor.

John Vetter, an ex-natural resources technician for the department's Forestry Bureau, was awarded more than $688,000 in damages after a jury agreed last year that he was fired in 2013 over a disability involving his back. Court documents in Polk County District Court show Judge Robert Hanson ordered on Thursday that Vetter be paid an additional $246,000 for attorney's fees and other expenses.

In an earlier ruling this month, Hansen also ordered the Forestry Bureau's management team to stop discriminating against disabled workers and to review department protocol and training for handling such cases.

Vetter, who worked for the State Forest Nursery in Ames for 36 years, said he felt validation with the verdict and award.

"For me, personally, I think it's trying to heal over the embarrassment, the loss of my job after all those years," the 65-year-old said. "I'm just trying to move forward."

The attorney general's office, on behalf of the department, tried to toss the jury verdict and get a new trial, but Hansen denied that request earlier this month. State attorneys made several arguments in court documents, including that Vetter didn't prove his job termination was linked to a disability.

A spokesman for DNR referred questions about the case to the attorney general's office. Geoff Greenwood, a spokesman for the attorney general's office, said the state is still considering whether to appeal the final decision.

After a work injury in 2011, Vetter underwent spinal surgery and his doctor issued permanent work restrictions on how much he should lift, sit, stand and walk during an eight-hour workday. He was placed on involuntary medical leave in May 2013 after supervisors said his restrictions prevented him from performing his job duties. They also said there were no reasonable accommodations that could allow him to keep his job. He was fired a few months later.

Vetter's attorneys challenged the Forestry Bureau during a jury trial last summer and argued there was a breakdown in communication between supervisors over Vetter's job responsibilities and whether his work restrictions affected his ability to do them. Vetter said his supervisors never actually asked him about it.

Paul Tauke, Forestry Bureau chief, publicly apologized to Vetter during testimony in the trial, which Vetter's attorneys said is not usual in such a court proceeding. Tauke said if he hadn't received "bad" information, "there would have been a different outcome, and John Vetter would not have lost his job, and we would have accommodated his work restrictions."

Vetter said he accepted Tauke's apology but he still has painful memories about the experience. He said he was good at his job and his evaluations reflected that.

"To have it end the way it did was bad," he said. "I was quite upset about it and I can honestly tell you that I still am and probably will be for a while."

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