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Eden v. Van Buren County Sheriff's Department

Court of Appeals of Iowa

July 18, 2018

DAYLE EDEN, Plaintiff-Appellant,
v.
VAN BUREN COUNTY SHERIFF'S DEPARTMENT and VAN BUREN COUNTY, IOWA, Defendants-Appellees.

          Appeal from the Iowa District Court for Van Buren County, Mary Ann Brown, Judge.

         A former county employee appeals the grant of summary judgment in her wrongful termination suit.

          Curtis R. Dial of Law Office of Curtis Dial, Keokuk, for appellant.

          Carlton G. Salmons of Macro & Kozlowski, L.L.P., West Des Moines, for appellees.

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

          TABOR, JUDGE.

         A former employee of the Van Buren County Sheriff's Department challenges the district court's grant of summary judgment on her claim for wrongful discharge in violation of public policy. The employee alleges the sheriff provided pretextual reasons for firing her, and his actions violated public policy. Pretext or not, we conclude the employee's failure to show participation in a protected activity is fatal to her claim of wrongful discharge, and the district court was correct in granting the employer's motion for summary judgment.

         I. Facts and Prior Proceedings

         Dayle Eden worked for Van Buren County from 1988 until she was fired by Sheriff Dan Tedrow on July 30, 2015. In a letter delivered to Eden that day, Tedrow identified three acts to "justify the termination of [Eden's] employment." He accused Eden of the following: (1) establishing a private password on the Van Buren County computer system; (2) intentionally keeping confidential records at her home; and (3) intentionally deleting computer files and an internet search history from a department computer. Tedrow further alleged Eden's actions were deceitful and intended to hide misconduct, which compromised her ability to handle confidential matters.

         Eden sued the Van Buren County Sheriff's Department and Van Buren County (collectively, the county) on September 14, 2015, alleging Tedrow falsified the evidence cited in the July 30 letter to justify her wrongful termination. On January 15, 2016, Eden filed an amended petition claiming wrongful discharge from employment.[1] The county moved for summary judgment on the wrongful-discharge claim on May 11, stating Eden was an at-will employee who could be terminated at any time for any reason. The county argued the discharge of an employee for specified reasons and not solely at the employer's discretion is within the recognized scope of the employment at-will rule.

         In her response, Eden claimed her discharge was not appropriate under the employment at-will rule because she had been terminated for reasons violating Iowa public policy. Eden asserted Sheriff Tedrow falsified evidence as justification for firing her. This falsification, Eden argued, violated the "communal conscience" and public policy of the State of Iowa in "matters of public health, safety, and general welfare."

         After hearing argument from the parties, the district court denied the county's motion for summary judgment stating, "If in fact a jury were to determine that documents were falsified, this would be a clear violation of public policy," and finding material facts in dispute barring the case from being decided as a matter of law.

         Before a jury trial began, the case was assigned to a different judge who revisited the motion for summary judgment. The district court determined for the lawsuit to continue, "The employee must have engaged in activity compelling the need for protection from wrongful discharge." Unable to identify Eden's participation in any activity which would warrant protection from termination, the court granted the county's motion for summary judgment and dismissed the wrongful discharge claim.[2]

         Eden voluntarily dismissed the remaining defamation claim and appealed the district court's summary judgment order. The ...


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