State v. Watkins, No. 17-0183

CourtUnited States State Supreme Court of Iowa
Writing for the CourtZAGER, Justice.
Citation914 N.W.2d 827
Parties STATE of Iowa, Appellee, v. Abraham K. WATKINS, Appellant.
Decision Date29 June 2018
Docket NumberNo. 17-0183

914 N.W.2d 827

STATE of Iowa, Appellee,
v.
Abraham K. WATKINS, Appellant.

No. 17-0183

Supreme Court of Iowa.

Filed June 29, 2018


Alfredo Parrish, Gina Messamer, and John Maschman of Parrish Kruidenier Dunn Boles Gribble Gentry Brown & Bergmann L.L.P., Des Moines, for appellant.

Thomas J. Miller, Attorney General, Jeffrey S. Thompson, Solicitor General, and Julie S. Kim, Assistant Attorney General, for appellee.

F. Montgomery Brown of F.M. Brown Law Firm, P.L.L.C., West Des Moines, Special Prosecutor, for appellee.

ZAGER, Justice.

An attorney removed from his elected position as Van Buren County Attorney challenges the district court order for his removal. Chapter 66 of the Iowa Code authorizes a district court to remove "[a]ny appointive or elective officer, except such as may be removed only by impeachment, holding any public office in the state or in any division or municipality thereof" in certain circumstances. Iowa Code § 66.1A (2015). We must now decide whether an elected county attorney was properly removed under this statute for sexual harassment. For the reasons set forth herein, we conclude that the conduct of the county attorney, while deserving the disapproval it received from the district court, did not rise to the level of misconduct that would warrant the "drastic" and "penal" remedy of a court order removing an elected official from office. See State v. Callaway , 268 N.W.2d 841, 842 (Iowa 1978) (using these terms to characterize chapter 66). We reverse the judgment of the district court and vacate the order removing the defendant from the office of Van Buren

914 N.W.2d 832

County Attorney. We remand the case for further proceedings consistent with this opinion.

I. Facts and Procedural Background.

In May 2013, Abraham Watkins was sworn into the Iowa bar and subsequently opened a solo practice in Keosauqua, Iowa. Watkins operated his law practice out of an office located on the first floor or main level of the two-story home he shared with his family. Watkins and his family mostly lived upstairs. However, the home’s kitchen, laundry room, and one of the two bathrooms are located on the main level, adjacent to the office area. Watkins’s wife, Renee Watkins, worked closely with her husband in the law office as the office manager for his private practice. In September 2014, Watkins hired twenty-year-old Jasmin Wallingford as his legal assistant. Two months later, Watkins was elected as the Van Buren County Attorney after running as an independent, and he assumed office on January 1, 2015.

Following Watkins’s election as the Van Buren County Attorney, which is a part-time position, Renee began to split her time between serving as the office manager for her husband’s private practice and the victim coordinator for the county attorney’s office. Additionally, Wallingford began working part-time for Watkins in the county attorney’s office, as well as part-time for him in his private law office.1 Wallingford became close to the Watkins family, even labeling herself an "honorary family member." Wallingford and the Watkins family shared personal details of their lives with each other. During this time, Wallingford assisted Watkins and Renee with their young daughters and socialized with them outside of the office. These social events included out-of-town trips Wallingford took with the family in which they visited waterparks and stayed in hotels together.

Based on a recommendation from Chris Kauffman, a friend of Watkins, Watkins hired Virginia Barchman as a part-time assistant county attorney in April 2015. At the time, Barchman had been retired for five years after a twenty-four-year career as an attorney with the Iowa Attorney General’s Office’s Area Prosecutions Division. Barchman began working in the same first-floor office area shared by Watkins, Renee, and Wallingford, though tensions arose between Watkins and Barchman not long after Barchman’s hiring. The pair engaged in a number of intense arguments that made it difficult for them to work together on cases.

Disagreements between Watkins and Barchman continued to escalate in the spring of 2016. Wallingford also began to look for other employment beginning in the spring of 2016. After a domestic-abuse trial that was held in the summer of 2016, Barchman expressed her frustrations with Watkins by criticizing his performance during the trial and accusing him of "smelling like booze."2 In August, Barchman obtained permission from the Van Buren County Board of Supervisors (Board) to work in a different office space in the Van Buren County courthouse due to issues she had with the noise in Watkins’s office and Watkins himself. She labeled this new workspace an "Abe-free zone." Watkins soon began seeking job applications for an assistant county attorney,

914 N.W.2d 833

which Barchman interpreted to mean Watkins was looking to replace her.

Although Watkins disputed that he had been drinking during the trial, he clearly had an issue with alcohol abuse outside the workplace. Renee grew tired of Watkins’s drinking habits, and the couple would constantly argue about their marital issues in the office. Finally, on August 5, Renee and the Watkinses’ children left the home to visit Renee’s family in North Carolina because Renee was exasperated with Watkins’s drinking. As a result, Watkins contacted Kauffman, who helped Watkins receive medical care for his drinking issues. Watkins also contacted and met with Hugh Grady from the Iowa Lawyers Assistance Program. Grady recommended that Watkins immediately stop drinking, visit a counselor, attend Alcoholics Anonymous meetings, and maintain regular contact with him. Watkins took the necessary steps to follow through with these recommendations, beginning with his sobriety. Throughout these personal struggles during the summer of 2016, both Watkins and Renee confided in Wallingford for support.

On August 9, Wallingford resigned from her positions with Watkins. Wallingford stated in her resignation letter, "I have learned many things in my time here, including what makes a hostile work environment." As her reason for leaving, she wrote, "Due to aberrant behavior and a hostile work environment, I no longer can continue my position and feel confident about coming into work." Kauffman met with Wallingford around the time of her resignation and encouraged her to write down all of her complaints regarding Watkins. Wallingford prepared her list in the week following her resignation. Barchman turned over Wallingford’s resignation letter to John Finney, the Van Buren County Auditor, and contacted her former colleague Scott Brown in the Iowa Attorney General’s Office about the resignation letter and Wallingford’s complaints with Watkins.

Wallingford’s list totaled approximately fifty-five complaints about her work with Watkins over the previous two years. The overwhelming majority of her complaints involved her frustration with the menial work tasks she was given and the way they made her feel inferior to Watkins. These complaints included "criticizing me in front of customers," "constant yelling between him [and] Renee," "the importance of him [and] not us," "my #1 job was to be there to answer the phone," and "[he] very often expected me to figure [work] out then remind me I didn’t go to law school." While the majority of Wallingford’s complaints dealt with work assignments and the lack of respect she felt she received, several of the complaints involved conduct potentially amounting to sexual harassment.

Wallingford reported that twice Watkins came down the stairs and entered the office area to get coffee while wearing only athletic shorts or boxer briefs in the early morning. On one of those occasions, Wallingford laughed and Watkins walked over to her desk. However, he did not stay long. According to Wallingford, neither of these occurrences happened within six months of the filing of the petition for removal.

On another occasion, Watkins showed Wallingford two photographs of his naked wife and a video Watkins made of an incident where his wife accidentally squirted breast milk in Wallingford’s car. The display of the photographs and the video occurred after work hours in the family kitchen while the family and Wallingford were having dinner together. Renee immediately objected to Watkins’s display of the photographs, and the incident in the family kitchen ended upon her objection. Although the timing of this incident is unclear,

914 N.W.2d 834

it did not occur within six months of the filing of the petition for removal.

Additionally, Watkins made several sexual comments to Wallingford. Some of these occurred in the workplace. On one occasion, Watkins told Wallingford that her "boobs [were] distracting him." On another occasion, after seeing a particular woman, Watkins told Wallingford, "Man, I wouldn’t want to see her naked." Watkins also complained to Wallingford that his wife did not want to have sex and said he wished he had a wife who wanted to have sex with him all the time. On another occasion, Watkins made an inappropriate sexual pun about the name of a cleaning product in the presence of Wallingford and two women custodians. Wallingford took this as a poor attempt at humor, and she knew that the other women did not understand it.

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7 practice notes
  • State v. Ingram, No. 16-0736
    • United States
    • United States State Supreme Court of Iowa
    • June 29, 2018
    ...usually does not contain personal or health information. I am not persuaded that Oregon—or perhaps Washington—would forbid inventorying 914 N.W.2d 827the contents of such a bag pursuant to an otherwise valid inventory search policy.This leaves New Jersey as the remaining jurisdiction discus......
  • Paskert v. Kemna-Asa Auto Plaza, Inc., No. C17-4009-LTS
    • United States
    • United States District Courts. 8th Circuit. Northern District of Iowa
    • November 7, 2018
    ...performance, discourage employees from remaining on the job, or keep them from advancing in their careers." Id. at 22.State v. Watkins, 914 N.W.2d 827, 855 (Cady, J., dissenting). However, I must consider whether, within the context of Eighth Circuit case law, this behavior rises to the lev......
  • Easterday v. Whirlpool Corp., No. 19-CV-20-LRR
    • United States
    • United States District Courts. 8th Circuit. Northern District of Iowa
    • March 30, 2020
    ...672 N.W.d 733, 743 (Iowa 2003), in turn quoting Harris Forklift Sys., Inc., 510 U.S. 17, 21 (1993))). Recently, in State v. Watkins, 914 N.W.2d 827 (Iowa 2018), a case involving the challenge of a state district court order removing an attorney from his elected position as a state county at......
  • Thanupakorn v. Webster Cnty. Iowa Conference Bd., No. C17-03008-LTS
    • United States
    • United States District Courts. 8th Circuit. Northern District of Iowa
    • October 12, 2018
    ...Pena, 863 F.3d at 998 (stating that the purpose is not to decide the propriety of the discharge). 9. Thanupakorn cites State v. Watkins, 914 N.W.2d 827 (Iowa 2018), a case that has no applicability here. Watkins involved the removal of an elected county attorney pursuant to an Iowa statute.......
  • Request a trial to view additional results
7 cases
  • State v. Ingram, No. 16-0736
    • United States
    • United States State Supreme Court of Iowa
    • June 29, 2018
    ...usually does not contain personal or health information. I am not persuaded that Oregon—or perhaps Washington—would forbid inventorying 914 N.W.2d 827the contents of such a bag pursuant to an otherwise valid inventory search policy.This leaves New Jersey as the remaining jurisdiction discus......
  • Paskert v. Kemna-Asa Auto Plaza, Inc., No. C17-4009-LTS
    • United States
    • United States District Courts. 8th Circuit. Northern District of Iowa
    • November 7, 2018
    ...performance, discourage employees from remaining on the job, or keep them from advancing in their careers." Id. at 22.State v. Watkins, 914 N.W.2d 827, 855 (Cady, J., dissenting). However, I must consider whether, within the context of Eighth Circuit case law, this behavior rises to the lev......
  • Easterday v. Whirlpool Corp., No. 19-CV-20-LRR
    • United States
    • United States District Courts. 8th Circuit. Northern District of Iowa
    • March 30, 2020
    ...672 N.W.d 733, 743 (Iowa 2003), in turn quoting Harris Forklift Sys., Inc., 510 U.S. 17, 21 (1993))). Recently, in State v. Watkins, 914 N.W.2d 827 (Iowa 2018), a case involving the challenge of a state district court order removing an attorney from his elected position as a state county at......
  • Thanupakorn v. Webster Cnty. Iowa Conference Bd., No. C17-03008-LTS
    • United States
    • United States District Courts. 8th Circuit. Northern District of Iowa
    • October 12, 2018
    ...Pena, 863 F.3d at 998 (stating that the purpose is not to decide the propriety of the discharge). 9. Thanupakorn cites State v. Watkins, 914 N.W.2d 827 (Iowa 2018), a case that has no applicability here. Watkins involved the removal of an elected county attorney pursuant to an Iowa statute.......
  • Request a trial to view additional results

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