U. Iowa Dean Who Botched Investigation on Sexual Assault Charge Not Discriminated Against

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Teamwork

The facts of this case have been in the media time and again, in different stages, under different circumstances, and in different venues.  It all arises from a terrible 2007 sexual assault perpetrated by two members of the University of Iowa football team against a female student-athlete.  It teaches us a valuable lesson about workplace investigations.

Background

In this chapter, Phillip E. Jones, who had been the Dean of Students and Vice President of Student Services at the University of Iowa, filed suit after he was terminated from his employment by University of Iowa President Sally Mason in 2008.  The University’s decision was based in part on a report from the Stolar Partnership, a law firm retained by the University to investigate the University’s response to a sexual assault of a student–athlete by other student athletes.

The Workplace Investigation

The investigation showed Jones had dropped the ball in many particulars, in what amounted to a complete failure to follow up on the complaint.  Some particular examples include: (1) not following up on any of the reports or information he received from other University personnel, or the investigators, by claiming he “hadn’t received a formal complaint;” and (2) by alleging that he did not even know who the victim or her mother were when they followed up with him on the (lack of) investigation on his end.

After he was terminated because the President Sally Mason indicated she had lost faith in him, Jones sued the University of Iowa, Mason, the Regents, and Stolar for invasion of privacy, defamation, wrongful termination, intentional interference with an employment contract, intentional interference with prospective business advantages, due process violations, and civil rights violations.

The case is not terribly interesting for Jones’ claims — he didn’t have any that survived — but it is an interesting read because it shows some of the workings of a full scale external workplace investigation conducted by a law firm on the University’s behalf.

In a unanimous decision of 36 pages, the Iowa Supreme Court noted Jones’ myriad failures in his failure to investigate the sexual assault, and the Court systematically disposed of each of his claims.

Final Thoughts

I’m a big believer in employer investigations, as troublesome and unwieldy as they can be, and the deference the Court gives to the investigators in this decision is a prime reason why.  The investigation and its findings play a central role in this decision, and the workplace investigation has the effect of substantiating the University’s decision in terminating the Plaintiff.

Remember, when the going gets tough, a good, thorough investigation can oftentimes be your best protection if any disciplinary decision is later challenged.

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