MICHAEL T. MANAHL, Plaintiff-Appellant,
STATE OF IOWA, Defendant-Appellee.
from the Iowa District Court for Polk County, Robert B.
former bureau chief in the Iowa Department of Agriculture and
Land Stewardship challenges the grant of summary judgment for
the State on his claim for wrongful discharge in violation of
public policy. AFFIRMED IN PART, REVERSED IN PART,
J. Duff of Duff Law Firm, P.L.C., West Des Moines, and
Michael J. Carroll of Coppola, McConville, Coppola, Carroll,
Hockenberg & Scalise, P.C., West Des Moines, for
J. Miller, Attorney General, and Jacob J. Larson and David S.
Steward, Assistant Attorneys General, for appellee State.
Considered by Danilson, C.J., and Tabor and McDonald, JJ.
Iowa Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship (the
department) fired Michael Manahl from his position as chief
of the weights and measures bureau after only four and
one-half months on the job. Manahl blames the firing on his
pursuit of deceptive practices by a fuel company regulated by
the department. Manahl sued the State, alleging wrongful
discharge in violation of public policy and a whistleblower
claim. The State successfully moved for summary judgment,
insisting Manahl was let go because he did not meet his
supervisor's expectations for managing staff time and
scheduling annual gas-tank inspections and asserting
Iowa's whistleblower statute does not protect disclosures
of private wrongdoing. On appeal, Manahl only seeks reversal
of the court's ruling on his wrongful-discharge claim.
After viewing the record in the light most favorable toward
Manahl, we find questions of material fact exist on
Manahl's wrongful-discharge claim regarding the cause of
his firing and the department's justification for its
action. Accordingly, we affirm in part, reverse in part, and
remand for a trial.
Facts and Prior Proceedings
October 12, 2012, Steve Moline, director of the consumer
protection and industry services division of the agriculture
department, hired Manahl as chief of the weights and measures
bureau. The bureau's mission is to check
"gas pumps and scales . . . to affirm that they are
accurate, " according to the deposition testimony of
Iowa Secretary of Agriculture Bill Northey.
testified that upon starting work, he "was informed that
we needed to ensure that all the fuel meters were inspected
annually, and there was some question on what staff was doing
what, when, and where, to ensure that was done." After
about three weeks on the job, Manahl distributed a
spreadsheet to staff members to help them track their time
each week and record how many inspections they could
complete. He shared the proposed itinerary tracking sheets
with his boss, Moline, on October 29, 2012. During his first
few months of work, Manahl met regularly with Moline and did
not recall Moline expressing any concerns about Manahl's
November 2012-about six weeks into Manahl's tenure as
chief- one of the bureau's fuel inspectors discovered
what he believed to be mislabeling of the octane rating of a
product sold at two different prices by Molo Petroleum, a
fuel company doing retail business as Big 10 Marts. The
inspector found fuel containing 9.7% ethanol in both the E87
and E89 tanks-"priced $3.29 on E87 buttons and $3.39 on
E89 pumps." Manahl discussed the findings with Molo
general manager Glen Hasken, who insisted the practice met
minimum standards set by state law and the Federal Trade
Commission. Manahl questioned whether Molo was
misrepresenting prices and suspected the practice amounted to
consumer fraud. Hasken voiced his irritation with
Manahl's belief Molo was committing a pricing violation
to John Maynes, a lobbyist with the Petroleum Marketers and
Convenience Stores of Iowa (PMCI), a trade association
representing fuel retailers.
pricing matter was the subject of a meeting on December 12,
2012. The participants were Manahl, Hasken, and Maynes.
Hasken explained Molo's pricing discrepancy was "a
market test" in an effort to be competitive with other
retailers "across the bridge in Illinois." Hasken
questioned why the bureau of weights and measures cared about
the price at which Molo sold its product. Manahl responded:
"[W]e are not telling you what you can sell it at, but
you should not be selling the 'same' product at two
different prices." Although not admitting any
wrongdoing, Hasken said his company had discontinued the
December 14, 2012, Manahl drafted a letter to Hasken alleging
possible violations of the state administrative code
regarding fuel-rating rules and multi-tier pricing. The
letter asked Molo to "cease" the practices
immediately. Also as part of his research into the
fuel-pricing issue, Manahl contacted an investigator with the
Iowa Attorney General's Office on December 20, 2012.
sending the letter, Manahl discussed the draft with Moline,
who told him to do further investigation. According to
Moline's affidavit, he advised Manahl that the
allegations concerning mislabeling and pricing violations
fell into a "gray area" of the law and asked him to
delete such accusations from the letter. Manahl also recalled
Moline advising him not to contact the Iowa Attorney
General's Office about the allegations but, rather, to go
through "proper channels" within the agriculture
department. Manahl received Moline's approval to send a
revised letter to Hasken in late December 2012.
the pricing issue seemed to subside, a new concern arose at a
Big 10 Mart in Bettendorf. On December 28, 2012, the weights
and measures bureau received several "bad gas"
complaints from customers whose cars stalled after buying
Molo fuel. Molo identified the problem as "phase
separation" related to water in the fuel storage tank.
Manahl gave an interview to a Quad Cities television station
on the "phase separation" issue on January 2, 2013.
Manahl also discussed Molo's pricing practices with the
reporter. According to Hasken's affidavit, after the news
story aired, "Molo began receiving a substantial amount
of negative feedback and backlash in the local press and on
social media about the pricing of Molo's gasoline."
January 11, 2013, Hasken wrote an email to Maynes referencing
Manahl's television interviews:
Check out our media darling with weights and measures. This
is the third story that he has done with this news station
regarding a simple case of phase separation. Now he leaked to
them . . . the same-product-being-sold issue. As far as I am
concerned this is war. This guy is out of touch and out of
control. None of his information is factual. Something needs
to be done with this guy.
mid-January 2013, Hasken expressed his frustrations with the
weights and measures bureau directly to Secretary Northey.
According to Hasken's affidavit, Northey said he would
"have his office look into the matter." Over the
next few weeks, Hasken and Moline had several phone
conversations and email exchanges in which Hasken vented
about "W&M Bureau's handling of its
investigation into Molo and Manahl's statements to the
news media." Hasken demanded "a written public
apology for the negative impacts Molo suffered because of the
false news media coverage instigated by Manahl's false
and misleading public accusations."
lobbyist Maynes also recalled having at least five telephone
calls with Moline during this time period. Maynes testified
at his deposition he was "hoping to find a resolution to
the matter that was satisfactory for Glenn [Hasken]"
because the pricing issue was "starting to take up an
awful lot of time." Maynes also obtained information on
the inner workings of the weights and measures bureau, having
learned from one of Manahl's employees that Manahl had
been making inspectors ...