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Charleston v. Polk County Civil Service Commission

Court of Appeals of Iowa

July 24, 2019

DAN CHARLESTON, Plaintiff-Appellant,

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

         A former sergeant appeals an order affirming the termination of his employment by the Polk County Sheriff.

          Stephen T. Fieweger, Davenport, for appellant.

          John P. Sarcone, Polk County Attorney, and Megan L. Gavin, Assistant Polk County Attorney, for appellee.

          Considered by Vaitheswaran, P.J., and Doyle and Tabor, JJ.

          TABOR, JUDGE.

         The Polk County Sheriff fired Sergeant Dan Charleston, alleging he was insubordinate and allowed hostile behavior in the workplace. The Polk County Civil Service Commission found the firing was warranted. As did the district court. Charleston now appeals the judicial review order.

         Finding substantial evidence in the record to support the commission's decision, we affirm the termination of Charleston's employment. And because Charleston did not present direct and compelling evidence to overcome the presumption of honesty and integrity of the commissioners, we conclude he had a fair hearing.

         I. Background Facts and Proceedings

         The Polk County Sheriff hired Charleston as a deputy in 1997 and promoted him to sergeant in 2002. In 2015, Charleston worked in the court services division, overseeing transportation and temporary lodging for inmates awaiting court appearances.[1] At one point, Charleston's duties included assigning deputies to accompany inmates to and from the courthouse. But because of complaints of favoritism, in May 2015, Chief Kevin Schneider shifted that responsibility to a different sergeant and limited Charleston's duty to verifying and updating the assignment list. Lieutenant Ron Richards followed up by verbally informing Charleston that moving forward, Charleston would need to consult his supervisor before modifying any assignments.

         In June 2015, Sheriff Bill McCarthy sent Charleston a letter of reprimand. The letter accused Charleston of changing the deputies' assignments without notifying his supervisor, a violation of an internal rule prohibiting insubordination, given the earlier order.

         Less than a year later, in April 2016, the sheriff suspended Charleston for two days for violating the same rule-insubordination based on changing the court-trip assignments without notifying his supervisor. Charleston unsuccessfully appealed the suspension to the commission.

         The next month, a string of incidents and corresponding disciplinary recommendations prompted Sheriff McCarthy to meet with Charleston. First, in May 2016, Charleston adjusted the assignment list without consulting his supervisor. That supervisor, Lieutenant Shawn VanHoozer, reprimanded Charleston for insubordination and recommended demotion. Next in the chain of command, Captain James Brown, reviewed the matter and instead recommended firing Charleston based on his disciplinary record. Chief Schneider agreed termination was appropriate, noting the sheriff's office could not count on Charleston to follow orders.

         In the same timeframe, Polk County labor relations manager Mike Campbell was investigating complaints of gender bias and a hostile work environment in the court-staging division. Campbell interviewed Deputy Beverly Pursley, who recalled an incident when she was eating lunch at her work station and Charleston interrupted, ordering her to pick up toilet paper in the holding cells, a "disgusting" task she had never seen male deputies required to do. In his interview with Charleston, Campbell mentioned an employee had complained about having to leave lunch to check the toilet paper rolls.

         The day after Campbell interviewed Charleston, Deputy Pursley was eating lunch in the court-staging area when she heard Deputy Mark VanDePol say, "I'm going to lunch now. Do we need toilet paper in the H [holding] cells?" Pursley recalled hearing Charleston and VanDePol "chuckle about it in low tones." Deputy Pursley testified she believed Charleston must have told VanDePol about her complaint: "I thought they were making fun of me." The fact they found humor in the situation made her feel "angry" and "humiliated." Deputy VanDePol admitted making the comment and said, "it was a running joke in the back." VanDePol said he did not remember who told him about it, but he was aware it was an issue.

         Finding Charleston violated internal rules for neglect of duty and lack of cooperation, [2] Lieutenant VanHoozer recommended terminating Charleston's employment. Captain Brown approved the termination recommendation, believing Charleston had a responsibility to prevent a hostile work environment. Chief Schneider agreed, stating he believed Charleston intended to "bully" or "intimidate" Deputy Pursley by showing her complaints would not be kept confidential.

         After reviewing Charleston's record and the recommendations from the sergeant's superiors, as well as meeting with Charleston to discuss the allegations, Sheriff McCarthy fired Charleston. In his written report, Sheriff McCarthy pointed to Campbell's investigation concluding Charleston's supervision led to workplace hostility, ...

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