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Mial v. Foxhoven

United States District Court, N.D. Iowa, Western Division

April 4, 2018

JERRY R. FOXHOVEN, et al., Defendants.


          Leonard T. Strand, Chief Judge


         This case is before me on a motion (Doc. No. 26) for summary judgment filed by defendants Jerry Foxhoven, in his official capacity as Director of the Iowa Department of Human Services, Richard Shults, in his official capacity as Administrator of the Division of Mental Health and Disability Services, Cory Turner, in his individual capacity and in his official capacity as Superintendent of the Civil Commitment Unit for Sexual Offenders (CCUSO), Brad Wittrock, in his individual capacity and in his official capacity as Deputy Superintendent of CCUSO, and Dan Pingel, in his individual capacity and in his official capacity as Treatment Program Supervisor at CCUSO. Plaintiff Michael Eric Mial (Mial) has filed a resistance (Doc. No. 29) and defendants have replied (Doc. No. 30). I find that oral argument is not necessary. See N.D. Ia. L.R. 7(c).


         Mial commenced this action by filing a complaint (Doc. No. 2) on January 23, 2017. The complaint included several constitutional claims and claims under federal and Iowa law against various state employees. All of the claims relate to an allegation of unlawful discrimination on the basis of religious beliefs, allegedly culminating in the termination of Mial's employment at CCUSO.

         Defendants responded with a pre-answer motion (Doc. No. 8) to dismiss for failure to state a claim, which I granted in part and denied in part. See Doc. No. 19. Counts VI and XI were dismissed in their entirety, as was Mial's request for declaratory relief. Certain other claims were dismissed in part.

         Defendants filed an answer (Doc. No. 20) on November 20, 2017, denying all remaining claims. Defendants then filed their motion for summary judgment on February 16, 2018. In his resistance, Mial states that he “does not resist entry of summary judgment with respect to all claims other than his religious discrimination claims under Title VII and the Iowa Civil Rights Act (Counts VII and VIII of the Complaint).” Doc. No. 29 at 1. Thus, Counts VII and VIII of the complaint set forth the only claims that remain for consideration.[1]


         Unless otherwise noted, the parties do not dispute the following facts:

         Mial applied for and was awarded the position of Psychiatric Security Specialist (PSS) at CCUSO. His first day of work was December 7, 2015. Doc. No. 26-3 at 44, 165. State employees, including Mial, are considered probationary for the first six months of employment. Id. at 8, 58. The PSS position involves working directly with CCUSO patients, [2] as set out in the position description questionnaire. Id. at 7, 165-69. Among other things, a PSS employee: “[p]rovides care and treatment of patients by implementing program policies, ” “[p]erforms essential security functions, such as conducting unit counts and security checks and maintaining order and discipline on the unit, ” “[o]bserves and accurately documents information relating to each patient, ” “[a]ttends treatment team meetings” and “[f]ollows written and supervisory directives, personnel policies, and departmental policies.” Id. at 165-66.

         After a probationary employee has worked for six months, CCUSO supervisors must decide whether to retain or discharge the employee. Factors considered in this decision include how the probationary employee engaged with patients and other employees, as well as the employee's ability to follow work rules, policies and supervisory directives. Id. at 58. CCUSO employees are required to follow work rules, including those applicable to the use of employee email accounts.[3] Id. at 58, 166.

         Mial sent 49 emails using his CCUSO email account between December 22, 2015, and April 27, 2016. Id. at 87-153. These emails discussed administrative matters (id. at 87, 89-90, 92-98, 104-05, 114-18, 142, 144), scheduling issues (id. at 88, 99-102, 106, 119-25, 127, 130-39, 143, 148-53), and personal matters (id. at 91, 126, 128). On two occasions, Mial used his CCUSO email account to forward incident reports about CCUSO patients to the next shift of employees. Id. at 140, 145. Beginning March 5, 2016, Mial signed the majority of his emails sent through his CCUSO email account with the valediction “In Christ.” Id. at 120, 123-53. The two emails containing patient information also included the valediction “In Christ.” Id. at 140, 145.

         Mial admits that he first used “In Christ” in his CCUSO email signature on March 5, 2016. Doc. No. 29-3 at 2 (¶ 12). He has not explained why he did not use that phrase before that date, or why he began doing so on that date. See, e.g., Doc. No. 26-3 at 209. Mial has stated, however, that he uses the “In Christ” valediction for the purpose of proclaiming his faith in all he does. Pastor Steve Britton of Cavalry Baptist Church in Estherville, Iowa, testified that while Mial is not a member of his church, he and his family have attended services at the church “probably half a dozen times total.” Id. at 34. Pastor Britton testified that members of his church believe that they are to “give out the gospel” and that his church “normally tr[ies] to train people to go out and knock on doors, give out gospel, give the gospel message.” Id. at 34-35. When asked whether it would be necessary to use “In Christ” in a work email to proclaim one's faith, Pastor Britton responded:

A: It would be up to the boss.
Q: Okay.
A: You know. It-whatever-whatever the company policy is. If they tell you not to do it, then you don't do it. You know, we're to-we're to obey the authorities over us.
Q: And that would include the employer?
A: Yeah. Id. at 35. Pastor Britton also testified that there are “several ways” available for followers to proclaim their faith to others. Id.

         Mial's valediction came to the attention of his supervisors in April 2016. Turner emailed Wittrock regarding the use of the “In Christ” valediction on an email containing a patient incident report. Id. at 176. Turner testified that he made this decision because he thought the valediction “could potentially be an issue.” Id. at 65. Specifically, Turner thought that the valediction implicated issues of keeping church and state separate, and promoting one specific religion over another. Id. Turner testified that CCUSO policy directly addressed this issue, which he considered to be rules governing “the use of email in a professional fashion.”[4] Id. at 66.

         On April 11, 2016, Wittrock asked Pingel, Mial's direct supervisor, to address Mial's valediction. Id. On April 12, 2016, Wittrock sent an email memorandum to all staff at CCUSO stating: “Email signatures need to contain business related information only and employees shall not include any personal messages.” Id. at 177. While other staff stopped using non-business-related email signatures, Mial continued to use the “In Christ” valediction. Id. at 84. On April 20, 2016, Pingel and Mial met to discuss Mial's non-compliance with the email signature rule. At this meeting, Mial requested to keep his email without any changes. Id. at 82. Pingel testified that Mial did not explain in great detail why he wished to ...

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