Friday, September 22, 2023

That's What He Said

The Ottumwa (Iowa) Courier reports on a discipline matter scheduled for oral argument before the Iowa Supreme Court on October 11

Wapello County Attorney Reuben Neff is pushing back against claims of a hostile work environment within his office that led an Iowa disciplinary review board to recommend his law license be suspended.

In documents filed with the Iowa Supreme Court, which will rule on his appeal, Neff said the Iowa Attorney Discipline Commission was wrong to reprimand him for sexual harassment.

Charges with the commission were originally filed in August 2022. In April, the commission determined that Neff's license should be suspended for 60 days and said that a public reprimand or shorter suspension wouldn't be sufficient.

Neff appealed the decision to the Iowa Supreme Court. The sides have now submitted their briefs to the court, but it's not clear when the court will make a ruling.

The commission takes issue with comments Neff has made within the Wapello County Attorney's Office, including comments made about various judges.

Many of the comments outlined in filings with the commission are those that were also included in a battle by a former employee over unemployment benefits that were challenged. That former employee, Tanvi Yenna, also filed a complaint with the commission to initiate the disciplinary process for Neff.

Many of the statements have been acknowledged by Neff as having been said. He has argued the statements in question do not arise to the level of requiring disciplinary action, asserting either free speech rights or instances where additional context made Neff's original meaning more clear.

The stipulated comments range from derogatory language aimed at judges, or hopes that something bad would happen to criminal defendants.

Among the stipulated comments said by Neff include:

— In Sept. 2019, Neff told employees after losing a sexual assault trial that he wished the defendant would be "raped by antelopes and mauled by lions at the same time."

— While prosecuting a defendant, Neff commented that the individuals anus would be "this big" while indicating a circular shape by the time the defendant left prison, an apparent reference to being raped in prison.

— In Oct. 2019, Neff referred to Judge Shawn Showers as a "limp d---" after the judge acquitted a defendant of a sexual assault charge.

— Neff would occasionally refer to judges as "bitches" following an unfavorable ruling.

— The commission also stated that Neff would use other sexually-charged language, including telling inappropriate stories to staff.

Among the stipulated facts of the case, in which both Neff and the commission agree, are that the current staff of the attorney's office feel the office dynamics are the best they've been in a number of years.

An administrative law judge ruled for the county in Yenna's dispute over unemployment benefits, which first brought Neff's comments to the public eye. In his ruling, the judge found that Yenna had not properly notified the employee about unacceptable conditions.

No current employees have filed verbal or written complaints regarding sexual harassment and of 10 employees, nine are female and include one that is a member of the LGBTQIA+ community.

In briefs filed by Neff's attorney Matthew Sease, the prosecutor argues the commission made no attempt "in differentiating sexual harassment from general office vulgarity."

He argues that comments made were not made with sexual intent or meanings. Additionally he argues that there's not enough evidence to define the office workplace as being a hostile work environment.

However, if the Iowa Supreme Court still feels Neff is in violation of rules of contact, he also argues that the statements in question are protected by the First Amendment. The amendment, he argues, protects statements "of opinion relating to matters of public concern and/or statements that cannot reasonably be interpreted as stating actual facts about an individual, such as rhetorical hyperbole."

The commission in response argued that Neff isn't allowed to make certain statements within the practice of law.

“Neff is permitted to feel about criminal defendants any way he wishes, may express this ill will, and may even express himself in this exact manner — outside the practice of law," its brief reads. "When he is in the practice of law, however, he may not subject his employees to crude comments that would evoke pornographic imagery; even less may he vocalize a wish for sexual violence upon a defendant."

The commission further argues that Neff has created "an environment wherein he has been allowed to tell inappropriate stories, voice a wish of forced sodomy and bestiality upon criminal defendants, and use gendered insulting language.”

Neff continues to serve as Wapello County Attorney during the ongoing appeal.

From Respondent's initial brief

Sometime in early 2020, Respondent came to the office late due to taking time to snow blow his driveway. Upon entering the office Respondent explained that he spent time snow blowing five inches, though he did not believe his wife minded. After seeing a staff member smirk at this comment, Respondent did state “that’s what she said.” This was a reference to the TV show “The Office” and was a quote Ms. Yenna and Carly Schoemaker used frequently in the office.

From Respondent's reply brief

The Board also criticizes Neff for making a reference to a running joke on the wildly popular television show “The Office” that has been off the air for nearly 10 years. See IMDB “The Office” (last visited July 26, 2023). To think that lawyers’ speech will not be chilled as a result of the Board’s interpretation of is unreasonable. It is unequivocal that the Board’s interpretation and application of Rule 32:8.4(g) would result in widespread punishment of protected speech.

That's what he said.

The briefs are linked here. (Mike Frisch)

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