Lawsuit against Story County Attorney and his office will be heard in federal court; Roxanne Conlin represents plaintiff in discrimination suit
By Lauris Olson
(May 16, 2012 – 8:45 a.m.) Two former long-term employees have sued Story County over alleged labor, wage and civil rights violations.
Cathleen Vincent, 37, of Nevada, served as the Story County Attorney’s Office victim witness coordinator for 12 years and worked in the office for two years before that. She sued the county, the county attorney’s office and Story County Attorney Stephen Holmes on March 6. The suit was transferred to U.S. District Court in Des Moines on April 16.
Vincent’s lawsuit claims that the county and Holmes fired her for exercising her First Amendment rights and failed to pay her for working in excess of 40 hours per week
Arlyss Peterson, 55, of St. Anthony, began working for Story County in 1980. She filed suit against the county, the Story County Community Life Program (SCCLP), and SCCLP employees Ron Christensen, Sandra Hammond, Gayla Harken and Christi Patterson on April 19.
Christensen is assistant administrator of SCCLP. Hammond is residential support manager. Harken is the administrator. Patterson is a residential team leader. All are current employees of the county.
Her lawsuit says that the county repeatedly denied accommodations for her disability beginning in 1996 and continued denying them until September of 2011, when she was terminated “only months away from retirement.” She also alleges that the county discriminated and retaliated against her due to her age.
Both terminations occurred within six months of the county hiring a fulltime director of human resources, Allissa Wignall, on April 24, 2011. The majority of the alleged employment law violations cited in both lawsuits occurred during one of three time periods:
Prior to Jan. 11, 2008, when an employee in the county supervisors’ office handled human resources-related duties under the supervision of the three county supervisors
Between Jan. 12, 2008 and Sept. 29, 2009 when the county was without any human-resources trained employee or a contract with an outside consultant
Between the dates of Sept. 30, 2009 and April 24, 2011, when human resources was handled by outside consulting firm HR One Source of Johnston.
Wayne Clinton, chairman of the Story County Board of Supervisors, said he did not believe the absence of a fulltime human resource person had any impact on the two employment cases.
“While the HR person does provide some additional working relationship between department heads and HR as far as following employment practices, I think employment law was followed in both cases.”
Clinton said he could not comment further since both were in litigation.
Free speech, overtime pay
Cathleen Vincent’s termination came 42 days after Nevada Police Officer David Johnson shot Kevin Johnson (no relation), 39, of Nevada in his home after 3 a.m. on April 10, 2011. Officer David Johnson was responding to a 911 call from Kevin Johnson’s wife, Jennifer, who reported that Kevin was drunk, had guns in the house and had physically attacked her and their 17-year-old son.
Kevin Johnson was a cousin of Vincent’s husband.
Her lawsuit alleges that Story County Attorney Stephen Holmes told her twice following the shooting that she was not to discuss Kevin or the circumstances of the shooting.
Vincent continued to discuss her cousin-in-law and his death with members of her family, noting in the lawsuit that her comments were “comments about a matter of public concern and protected by the First Amendment to the United State Constitution.”
The Iowa Department of Criminal Investigation (DCI) and the Iowa Attorney General’s Office cleared Officer Johnson of any wrongdoing in mid-May, 2011.
Vincent was fired on May 23, 2011.
The county’s failure to pay her overtime was not a one-time issue, according to the lawsuit petition:
“Plaintiff frequently worked overtime, but was not compensated for her hours worked in excess of forty hours… Complete records concerning the number of hours Plaintiff was required to work overtime for which Plaintiff has not been compensated, are in the possession of Defendant Story County, and Plaintiff does not know the exact amount owning to her.”
The lawsuit alleges the county’s failure to pay overtime was “intentional” and “willful.”
Vincent is seeking a court ruling that Story County violated her First Amendment Rights, back pay, “reinstatement of front pay in lieu of reinstatement,” lost benefits, past and future, compensation for her “emotional distress, humiliation and embarrassment,” and her overtime pay. In addition, she is asking that her attorney fees and cost of the action be reimbursed and “other such relief” determined to fair and equitable by the court.
Vincent is being represented by Michael J. Carroll and Kodi A. Brotherson of Babich Goldman, P.C. in Des Moines. The firm specializes in family and civil and employment law. Carroll’s experience includes legal work on a case for the U.S. Supreme Court.
Story County is being represented by Hugh J. Cain and Brent L. Hinders of Hopkins & Huebner, P.C. in Des Moines. Cain specializes in employment and government law. Hinders is a former assistant county attorney for Warren County.
Accommodations, pending retirement
Arlyss Peterson had worked in a number of positions with Story County Community Life over her 31 years with the county. She was a Supported Living Supervisor when she was fired Sept. 29, 2011, a job that required her to spend a lot of time using a computer.
She also suffered from rheumatoid arthritis and fibromyalgia “for many years,” according to the discrimination lawsuit petition she filed against the county on April 19.
Peterson’s attorney is Roxanne Conlin of Des Moines, a former United States Attorney for the Southern District of Iowa, who specializes in accident and discrimination cases. She also ran as the Democratic candidate for Governor of Iowa in 1982 and for U.S. Senator in 2010.
Conlin filed a discrimination claim for Peterson with the Iowa Civil Rights Commission in January – a required precursor to anyone wishing to sue for discrimination in employment, housing, public accommodations, education or credit.
The commission issued a right to sue letter in April. The letter is not a reflection on the merits of the case, said ICRC executive director Beth Townsend, Instead, it certifies that the case has been on file with her agency at least 60 days and during that time, had not been closed for lack of probable cause.
Story County is being represented by Deborah Tharnish, a senior partner in Davis, Brown, Choen, Shors and Roberts PC in Des Moines. Her practice includes all types of discrimination claims, wrongful termination claims and employer advisement.
Peterson says that she first requested “an accommodation” about 16 years ago. Her supervisor at the time, Sandra Hammond, allegedly laughed at her and denied the request.
Peterson’s lawsuit says that she continued to ask for accommodations and in the late 1990s, she was allowed to use a Dictaphone “for a couple of years” until the county changed its documentation procedures. She says that the county failed to provide accommodations that would work with the new procedures, despite repeated requests to the individually named defendants.
Over time, the lack of accommodations “increased the pain and aggravation of her arthritis and fibromyalgia, which resulted in Plaintiff having problems keeping up on her work tasks.” When she asked for more time to complete her work, Peterson says in the lawsuit, she was “always told that her deadlines could not be extended.”
In 2010, the lawsuit says, her schedule was switched from a flexible one to a regular Monday to Friday weekday shift which had her working during some of the times that her “disability makes her stiff, sore and slow moving,” Peterson alleges that Hammond also made age-related comments and discussed Peterson’s planned retirement in 2012.
Peterson says that after Hammond made a comment about Peterson retiring earlier, Hammond began to “receive warnings and counseling regarding her performance.” She was also disciplined twice during this period and again denied accommodations, prompting her to hire an attorney to provide a written request of reasonable accommodations “until she was eligible for retirement, which was less than a year away.”
The county offered accommodations, but according to Peterson, they “were not sufficient.”
On Aug. 4, 2011 Peterson was again warned and counseled about her job performance. She had her attorney write another request for accommodations. The county declined but then installed one of the accommodations she had requested years ago - a computer program. But before she could learn to use the program adequately, Peterson says, she was placed on administrative leave and fired two weeks later.
Peterson is asking for ruling of discrimination, an order preventing the county from violating Peterson or other’s rights in the future, compensation for mental and emotional damages, back wages and benefits with interest, attorney fees and court costs.
In addition, Peterson is asking for punitive damages in “an amount sufficient to punish Defendants and to deter them and others from engaging in illegal conduct” although Peterson acknowledges that
the law does not presently permit this, but they believe the law is wrong and will argue in good faith for a change in existing law.”
Attorneys for Story County have not filed responses in either case.