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University of Iowa's Firing Affirmed By Iowa Supreme Court

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By Aditi Mukherji, JD on August 27, 2013 3:56 PM

The Iowa Supreme Court ruled Friday the University of Iowa was justified in firing its longtime dean of students for mishandling a high-profile 2007 student sexual assault case.

In a 7-0 decision, the court affirmed the district court's 2012 dismissal of Phillip Jones' claims that he was defamed and wrongfully terminated by UI President Sally Mason. The court's decision is a reminder for practitioners to advise their clients to be proactive in sexual abuse and harassment investigations.

Background

In 2007, two football players were charged with sexually assaulting a female UI student-athlete after the two took turns having sex with her while she was passed out in a dorm room after a night of partying, reports The Associated Press.

In the aftermath of the incident, the university regents hired a law firm to investigate UI's handling of the high-profile sex abuse case. The firm's report placed blame on Jones and Marc Mills, UI's general counsel, for botching UI's investigation of the incident and alienating the victim. Mason fired them both.

Not surprisingly, a lawsuit followed soon thereafter. Jones sued UI, the Iowa state Board of Regents, Mason for wrongful termination and defamation (he also targeted the law firm in the defamation claim) -- but his arguments failed yet again, on appeal.

Legitimate Reason

Jones' wrongful termination claim stemmed from Mason's comments in a deposition in which she said she'd been told by the law firm investigators that Jones was "angry," and "defensive and belligerent." He argued those were stereotypes for black men, reports The AP.

But the court rejected his claims and held that Mason had a legitimate reason to fire Jones: She lost confidence in him after the firm's report revealed he took no action for days after learning of the assault. Mason reasonably believed Jones didn't do enough to protect the rights and safety of a freshman athlete who was assaulted in a dorm room by two football players, Justice Bruce Zager wrote.

Jones claimed he was initially kept out of the case and did what he could when he later got involved, but the court just didn't go for it.

Immunity

The Iowa Supreme Court also agreed with the lower court's ruling that Mason was entitled to immunity from the defamation and invasion of privacy claims as a state employee acting within the scope of her duties. There was no evidence Mason acted with malice or recklessly in making public statements regarding Jones' firing, the court reaffirmed.

It's possible Jones made a series of administrative missteps following the incident because there was no standard protocol in place -- but in the end, he was the one who needed to take charge of the situation, and his appearance of passivity didn't fly with the court. The court's decision is a cautionary tale for administrative heads involved in investigations on sensitive matters like sexual abuse -- show leadership or your head may be on the chopping block.

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