Iowa CO sues for wrongful termination

The corrections worker is alleged to have shared information in violation of the department's informational technology, confidentiality and ethics policies


By Jeff Reinitz
Waterloo-Cedar Falls Courier, Iowa

WATERLOO, Iowa — A former corrections worker is taking the First Judicial District Department of Correctional Services to court, alleging she was fired for merely sharing publicly available information when co-workers were allowed to keep their jobs despite criminal convictions.

According to court records, Kristen Johnson was terminated from the Women's Center for Change in Waterloo in August 2020 after disclosing information to a client at the center about charges the father of the client's child was facing.

Kristen Johnson's lawsuit argues that some male employees were allowed to remain on the job despite domestic abuse and operating while intoxicated convictions.
Kristen Johnson's lawsuit argues that some male employees were allowed to remain on the job despite domestic abuse and operating while intoxicated convictions. (Associated Press)

Her supervisors said the incident was a breach of the agency's confidentiality policy.

In the suit, Johnson's attorney said her firing was discriminatory and inconsistent with the treatment of other employees.

"Kristen was subjected to different terms and conditions of employment than her male counterparts, including but not limited to the suspension and eventual termination of her employment," her attorney, Lynn Smith, said in a lawsuit filed in Black Hawk County District Court.

The suit was later moved to federal court at the request of the Department of Correctional Services' lawyers.

In appealing her termination, Johnson argued that some male employees were allowed to remain on the job despite domestic abuse and operating while intoxicated convictions.

"Allowing male staff to remain employed despite their engagement in criminal offenses creates a situation within DCS where you have offenders supervising other offenders," Johnson wrote in a letter challenging her firing to the Iowa Civil Rights Commission.

The incident that led to Johnson's termination involved her communicating to a female client at the center information about the father of the client's child in July 2020.

Supervisors said Johnson had accessed confidential offender information that wasn't needed for her normal job duties and disclosed it to another person, which violated the department's informational technology, confidentiality and ethics policies. They allege she allowed the client to view information on her computer screen.

Johnson disputed the allegation that she showed her screen and responded that she pulled up the information to better understand her client's situation, to discuss her parenting and help her with Iowa Department of Human Services paperwork.

She said she was about to talk to her client about how her relationship with the father would affect her well-being and that of her child when she was interrupted by co-worker because of what she was doing.

Johnson also argued co-workers routinely undertake personal web surfing on their agency computers — streaming music, watching videos and checking the stock market.

She said a supervisor who fired her had earlier encouraged her to visit the supervisor's online store during work hours using a work computer, standing over her until felt pressured to make a purchase and leave a positive review. Another employee also made purchases and submitted a review.

"To add insult to injury, I continue to receive marketing emails from (the supervisor's) business," Johnson wrote in her appeal to the office's director.

The suit alleges sex discrimination and alleges the termination amounted to disability-based discrimination because Johnson underwent treatment for alcoholism in 2019, according to the lawsuit. The suit said treatment resulted in time away from work, and upon return she became the target of retaliation because she sought accommodations for her disability, the suit alleges.

Attorneys for the department are denying the allegations in the lawsuit and said in court records she was terminated for "legitimate, nondiscriminatory and non-retaliatory business reasons."

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McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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