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Ackerman v. State

Court of Appeals of Iowa

May 3, 2017

SUSAN ACKERMAN, Plaintiff-Appellant,

         Appeal from the Iowa District Court for Polk County, Scott D. Rosenberg, Judge.

         A former administrative law judge challenges the dismissal of her tort claim of wrongful discharge in violation of public policy.

          William W. Graham and Wesley T. Graham of Graham, Ervanian & Cacciatore, L.L.P., Des Moines, for appellant.

          Thomas J. Miller, Attorney General, and Jeffrey C. Peterzalek, Matthew T. Oetker, and Susan J. Hemminger, Assistant Attorneys General, for appellees.

          Heard by Vaitheswaran, P.J., and Tabor and Mullins, JJ.

          TABOR, Judge.

         After being suspended from her position as an administrative law judge (ALJ), Susan Ackerman sued her employer, the State of Iowa and Iowa Workforce Development, as well as three individuals.[1] Ackerman's pleadings eventually included the tort of wrongful discharge in violation of public policy, among other claims. The State moved to dismiss the wrongful-discharge tort, contending it was reserved for at-will employees and therefore not available to Ackerman whose employment was subject to a collective bargaining agreement (CBA). The district court granted the State's motion, and Ackerman successfully sought an interlocutory appeal.

         Ackerman divides her appellate argument into two parts, contending: (1) the district court should not have considered the CBA's terms in granting the State's motion to dismiss and (2) the district court incorrectly decided she was prohibited from suing in tort for wrongful discharge because she was covered by the CBA rather than being an at-will employee. We need not tackle Ackerman's first contention because the district court's ruling rests on her status as a contract employee and not on the CBA's terms. But because her status as a contract employee does not prevent her from pleading the claim of wrongful discharge, we reverse the dismissal order and remand for further proceedings.

         I. Facts and Prior Proceedings

         Ackerman worked as an ALJ with Iowa Workforce Development in its unemployment insurance appeals bureau from 2000 until she was fired for alleged misconduct in January 2015.[2] During a suspension of several weeks before the termination of her employment, Ackerman filed suit against the State, alleging, among other things, that her employer retaliated against her after she testified at a hearing before the Iowa Senate Government Oversight Committee about "pressures put on the ALJs . . . to render decisions in favor of employers." See Iowa Code § 70A.28(2) (2015) (prohibiting an employer from retaliating against a state employee for disclosing information to a member or employee of the general assembly "if the employee reasonably believes the information evidences a violation of law or rule, mismanagement, a gross abuse of funds, [or] an abuse of authority").

         On November 18, 2015, Ackerman filed her third amended petition, which contained eight counts, including a claim for wrongful discharge in violation of public policy. The State filed a motion to dismiss the wrongful-discharge count on November 30, arguing that because Ackerman was covered by a CBA, she could not bring a wrongful-discharge claim. In its motion, the State provided a hyperlink to the Iowa Department of Administrative Services website, which published the most up-to-date CBA between the State of Iowa and the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME), [3] and asserted the district court could take judicial notice of the document. The State also attached a copy of an AFSCME grievance form Ackerman had filed.

         In her response, Ackerman acknowledged being "subject to a CBA that allows for certain limited employee protections and remedies, " but she argued that status did not prohibit her from bringing a tort claim and that her claim survived a motion to dismiss because any analysis of whether she had an adequate remedy under the CBA could not be determined "at this early stage in the litigation."

         After hearing argument from the parties, the district court granted the motion to dismiss. The court concluded: "To the extent that the [CBA] provides for a remedy relating to wrongful discharge, [Ackerman] is not allowed to apply the narrow exception Iowa courts have reserved for at-will employment to her current situation." Ackerman sought interlocutory review, which the supreme court granted. The supreme court then transferred the case to us.

         II. Scope and ...

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