Williams v. Bullock, No. 20-0822

CourtUnited States State Supreme Court of Iowa
Writing for the CourtWATERMAN, Justice.
Citation960 N.W.2d 473
Parties Jeffrey Laverne WILLIAMS, Appellant, v. Mark Richard BULLOCK and Scott Richard Beckner, Appellees.
Docket NumberNo. 20-0822
Decision Date04 June 2021

960 N.W.2d 473

Jeffrey Laverne WILLIAMS, Appellant,
v.
Mark Richard BULLOCK and Scott Richard Beckner, Appellees.

No. 20-0822

Supreme Court of Iowa.

Submitted April 14, 2021
Filed June 4, 2021


Skylar J. Limkemann of Smith Mills Schrock Blades, P.C., Cedar Rapids, for appellant.

Thomas J. Miller, Attorney General, and Christopher J. Deist, Assistant Attorney General, for appellees.

Waterman, J., delivered the opinion of the court, in which all justices joined.

WATERMAN, Justice.

In this appeal, we must decide whether the State complied with Iowa Code section 35C.6 in the Veterans Preference Statute when it terminated the employment of a military veteran from his job as a police officer at the University of Iowa's (UI) Department of Public Safety (DPS). The employee was charged with misconduct after he searched a dorm room without a warrant or consent in violation of DPS policies. He was terminated but later reinstated without back pay following arbitration. Meanwhile, he filed a petition for writ of certiorari in district court alleging violations of section 35C.6 in his initial termination. The State responded, asserting that DPS had complied with section 35C.6. The district court ruled that DPS had complied with section 35C.6 as interpreted in Kern v. Saydel Community School District , 637 N.W.2d 157, 161 (Iowa 2001) (allowing flexibility in determining the type of pretermination hearing required under section 35C.6 and relying on posttermination rights to an evidentiary hearing before a neutral arbitrator). The veteran appealed, arguing that Kern should be overruled. We retained the case.

On our review, we decline the veteran's invitation to overrule Kern , and applying that precedent, we affirm the district court's ruling. The veteran was adequately apprised of the misconduct charges before his pretermination hearing he attended with counsel, and he had a formal postdischarge evidentiary hearing before a neutral arbitrator, thereby satisfying section 35C.6.

I. Background Facts and Proceedings.

On April 14, 2018, student resident hall assistants (RAs) received multiple complaints about a strong odor of marijuana on the tenth floor of Catlett Hall, the UI's newest and largest dormitory. RAs tracked the smell to a specific room. They contacted their supervisor, professional staff (pro-staff) member David Jaeger, who joined them at the door. After their repeated knocks went unanswered, he "keyed-in" to unlock the door. Upon entering, they saw in plain view items considered contraband under UI rules: a torch, a

960 N.W.2d 475

bong and pipe used to smoke marijuana, two scales, fake identification and alcoholic beverage containers. They refrained from opening backpacks or closed drawers in the room. They contacted the UI DPS to summon an officer to collect the contraband.

Officer Jeff Williams, a DPS employee, responded to the call from dispatch. He had over seven years of experience in law enforcement. Williams is a military veteran and his supervisors at DPS were aware he was a veteran. Williams had been deployed before and was scheduled to be deployed again in a few weeks. DPS had accommodated his prior deployments and was expected to accommodate his upcoming deployment.

Williams smelled a strong odor of burnt marijuana when he got off the elevator, which grew stronger as he neared the room. Upon entering the room, he smelled both burnt and fresh marijuana. He activated his body camera as he entered, and he recorded by video and audio his activities and conversations in that room.

After the RAs showed him the items they had found, Williams asked them, "So do we think maybe there's anything else or?" Jager responded, "There could be, but per our policy, we're not allowed to open anything, just things that are in the open." Williams stated, "I'm going to open some drawers. I can't charge anybody since you found it anyway." Williams proceeded to open and search desk drawers and backpacks in the room, stating, "Also, I leave for deployment in a few days so if they want to throw a fit over me they—they'll have to wait a while to deal with it." He said, "I just don't want to have to come back here again."

Williams discovered additional contraband, including several bags of marijuana, during the search. He joked with the RAs that they could close the door, wait for them, and say "Surprise!" when the students came back. After referring out loud to his "inappropriate side," he wrote, "I took your weed" on one of his business cards and left it in the drawer where he found the marijuana. Upon finding a locked case cable-locked to the bed frame, Williams said he was considering the "legalities." When the pro-staff member said, "We've never had DPS do a search of their belongings," Williams responded: "I am because they're not here and I just don't want to have to come back." Williams seized the marijuana and drug paraphernalia and asked the RAs to dispose of the other contraband. As Williams left Catlett Hall, he flippantly asked a staff member at the front desk: "Do you need any weed?"

Upon his return to the DPS station, he logged the marijuana and drug paraphernalia into evidence and prepared a report. Williams's initial draft referred to conducting a "search." A supervisor, Nick Jay, altered the report by deleting the word "search" and replacing it with the phrase, "looked around the room" when Williams "located marijuana in the living area of both occupants of the room, as well as a metal marijuana grinder." Jay's revision conflicted with the report from the RAs and pro-staff member stating that Williams "arrived and decided to conduct a search of the room where he opened drawers and backpacks."

The RA report was reviewed under normal residence hall procedures, and Gregory Thompson, the Director of Residence Education in the UI's Housing and Dining Department, emailed Captain Mark Bullock, Williams's superior, on April 19. The email inquired about the April 14 incident and asked Bullock to clarify the DPS policy for a search without consent or a warrant. Bullock reviewed Williams's incident report, the bodycam video, and the RA report, and then conferred with Lucy

960 N.W.2d 476

Wiederholt, the Chief of the DPS Police Division, for direction on how to proceed. They agreed that a formal administrative investigation was appropriate, and Bullock was assigned to investigate the incident. Chief Wiederholt told Bullock it "could rise to the level of termination if employee and labor relations and human resources supports that." Wiederholt told Bullock that they should take it to Scott Beckner, the DPS Director, who was informed and said he would review the investigation after its conclusion.

That same day, Bullock contacted Shelley Stickfort with Employee and Labor Relations, and he prepared the summary of complaint pursuant to the Peace Officer Bill of Rights in Iowa Code section 80F.1.1 Bullock retrieved Williams's badge and gun before Williams arrived for his shift. Shortly after Williams arrived, Bullock and Laurie Textor, the Senior Human Resources Director in Finance and Operations, met with him and told him he was being placed on administrative leave pending an investigation into his conduct. Bullock served Williams the summary of complaint and the administrative leave letter. The letter stated: "The reason for the investigation is to obtain information regarding your decisions and actions at Catlett Hall on April 14, 2018." The summary of complaint stated that

on or about April 14, 2018, you may have performed a warrantless search of Catlett Residence Hall, Room [ ], without consent. Initial review of this information has led me to believe the search and your conduct during the search or seizure may be in violation of University of Iowa Department of Public Safety Policy and/or University of Iowa Work Rules or Policies.

On April 26, Bullock and Stickfort interviewed Williams, who was represented by counsel. The interview focused on Williams's conduct in the dorm room and took over three hours, including reviewing the body cam video with him. He did not deny any of his statements or conducting the search without a warrant or consent. Williams contended the search fell into a gray area and his conduct was justified from a community caretaking position for the safety of the residents of Catlett Hall.

On May 3, Williams, again represented by counsel, attended a Loudermill hearing, where he was informed that the decision-makers were leaning toward termination and gave Williams an opportunity to respond to the allegations. See Cleveland Bd. of Educ. v. Loudermill , 470 U.S. 532, 546, 105 S. Ct. 1487, 1495, 84 L.Ed.2d 494 (1985) ("The opportunity to present reasons, either in person or in writing, why proposed action should not be taken is a fundamental due process requirement."). Williams read a statement: "I stand by my actions as a police officer and truly thought I was looking out for the well-being of thousands of residents of Catlett Hall that night." Later that day, Williams was terminated.

Williams initiated both this certiorari action and a posttermination grievance procedure. The grievance proceeded to a three-day evidentiary hearing before a neutral arbitrator in August 2019. Multiple witnesses testified, including Williams. The arbitration...

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3 practice notes
  • Copeland v. State, 21-0981
    • United States
    • Court of Appeals of Iowa
    • August 31, 2022
    ...that end, the Veterans Preference Act "provides veterans with certain hiring preferences and workplace protections." Williams v. Bullock, 960 N.W.2d 473, 477 (Iowa 2021); accord Iowa Code § 35C.1(1). Among those protections is section 35C.6: No person holding a public position by appointmen......
  • Varela v. City of Muscatine, 20-1132
    • United States
    • Court of Appeals of Iowa
    • September 22, 2021
    ...as an effective substitute for a pre-termination hearing. The supreme court recently confirmed that reading. See Williams v. Bullock, 960 N.W.2d 473, 478-80 (Iowa 2021). In Bullock, a terminated police officer who was also a veteran advocated for overruling Kern on the ground "his pretermin......
  • Varela v. City of Muscatine, 20-1132
    • United States
    • Court of Appeals of Iowa
    • September 22, 2021
    ...as an effective substitute for a pre-termination hearing.The supreme court recently confirmed that reading. See Williams v. Bullock , 960 N.W.2d 473, 478–80 (Iowa 2021). In Bullock , a terminated police officer who was also a veteran advocated for overruling Kern on the ground "his pretermi......
3 cases
  • Copeland v. State, 21-0981
    • United States
    • Court of Appeals of Iowa
    • August 31, 2022
    ...that end, the Veterans Preference Act "provides veterans with certain hiring preferences and workplace protections." Williams v. Bullock, 960 N.W.2d 473, 477 (Iowa 2021); accord Iowa Code § 35C.1(1). Among those protections is section 35C.6: No person holding a public position by appointmen......
  • Varela v. City of Muscatine, 20-1132
    • United States
    • Court of Appeals of Iowa
    • September 22, 2021
    ...as an effective substitute for a pre-termination hearing. The supreme court recently confirmed that reading. See Williams v. Bullock, 960 N.W.2d 473, 478-80 (Iowa 2021). In Bullock, a terminated police officer who was also a veteran advocated for overruling Kern on the ground "his pretermin......
  • Varela v. City of Muscatine, 20-1132
    • United States
    • Court of Appeals of Iowa
    • September 22, 2021
    ...as an effective substitute for a pre-termination hearing.The supreme court recently confirmed that reading. See Williams v. Bullock , 960 N.W.2d 473, 478–80 (Iowa 2021). In Bullock , a terminated police officer who was also a veteran advocated for overruling Kern on the ground "his pretermi......

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