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Jean Regenwether v. Clinton Humane Society

June 27, 2012


Appeal from the Iowa District Court for Clinton County, Mark J. Smith, Judge.

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Mullins, J.

A discharged employee appeals the district court ruling denying her breach of an employment contract claim against her former employer. AFFIRMED.

Heard by Eisenhauer, C.J., and Potterfield and Mullins, JJ.

Jean Regenwether appeals a district court's ruling concluding her termination from employment with the Clinton Humane Society (CHS) was "for cause." We affirm.

I. Background Facts and Proceedings.

Over twenty years ago Regenwether began volunteering for CHS walking dogs and helping with fundraising events. She eventually served a term on the CHS Board of Directors (board), but left for other interests.

In approximately 1999, Regenwether applied for and was hired as the administrator for CHS. Regenwether did not have a written employment contract. As administrator, she oversaw the daily operation of CHS's animal shelter, which included working with the animals, answering phones, staff scheduling, bookkeeping, annual reviews, handling city and county contracts, fundraising, and educational programming. After a couple of years, Regenwether resigned the position to begin her own pet-sitting and dog-training business.

Around 2002, Regenwether returned to work for CHS as its administrator. She again did not have a written employment contract, and her duties remained basically the same. Regenwether worked for CHS for two to three years before she was terminated by the board for undisclosed reasons. Following her dismissal, Regenwether returned to her pet-sitting and dog-training business, where she earned certification as a pet sitter and animal behaviorist and trainer.

Toward the end of 2007, a CHS board member approached Regenwether and requested she apply for the vacant administrator position. Because of some of her prior difficulties with the board, Regenwether was hesitant about accepting the position. Therefore, with the help of Roger Fraser, a friend who had prior experience as a union negotiator for teachers, Regenwether drafted an employment contract. The contract was titled a "Four-Year Contract," and provided for a starting annual salary of $26,500 with pay increases of three-anda-half percent for each of the three following years. The contract further had provisions pertaining to vacation, sick leave, and bereavement leave, but did not have any provisions addressing severance or termination. Regenwether submitted the employment contract to CHS.

On January 30, 2008, CHS entered into the employment contract with Regenwether without making any additions, deletions, or modifications to the contract terms. The contract was signed by Regenwether and CHS's board officers. Regenwether testified she included a cover letter, a letter of understanding, and a comprehensive job description with the contract, but these documents are not referred to in the employment agreement, nor are they signed by any of the board officers. In addition, Regenwether's letter of understanding acknowledges "these expectations are not binding on the Board."

During her third stint with CHS, Regenwether supervised nine to eleven employees as well as about ten weekly volunteers. She continued to maintain similar job responsibilities as during her first and second tenures, which included any discipline of employees. In her third tenure Regenwether had to fire two employees for stealing funds from CHS and sanction three others with one-day suspensions without pay for disciplinary reasons. Animal care specialist, Michele Hill, was one of the employees suspended, which occurred in 2010.

Regenwether also attended monthly board meetings. During her third tenure, she was involved in three incidents at these board meetings.

The first incident occurred in September 2009 between Regenwether and board member, Tammy Olsen. The two had a disagreement concerning the shelter's pet cemetery. This disagreement resulted in Regenwether becoming upset, storming out of the boardroom, and not returning. Olsen also left the boardroom, but returned for the remainder of the meeting. Regenwether proceeded to her office and began packing a few of her personal items. Regenwether did return to work the following day. Although Olsen wrote to the board President, Robert Hoffman, urging a sanction on Regenwether, Mary James, a fellow board member and the shelter's volunteer rescue coordinator, convinced the board not to take any disciplinary action. Regenwether admitted that following this meeting she and Olsen "didn't speak for a while."

The second incident occurred when board members expressed complaints about a monthly newsletter that had been printed showing the numbers of animals the shelter had euthanized. When one of the board members voiced concern the public perceived that as the shelter "killing" animals, Regenwether objected, became upset, and started to cry. Regenwether stood to leave the meeting, but other ...

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