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Civic Skinny

Paige Fiedler wails; Judge Bennett concurs.

7/24/2013

There’s an old joke among lawyers: “What does a plaintiff’s lawyer say when he loses a case?”

“Next case!”

But what Paige Fiedler does is rant and, in her own words, have a pity party. After losing — for the second time — that odd case of the pretty dental assistant, the ever-watchful wife and the dentist-husband who fired the pretty assistant at the behest of the watchful wife who feared there may be trouble down the road, Fiedler took to the Internet.

And her friends, including the always-quotable if not always-judicial Judge Mark Bennett, joined the chorus.

“I am devastated,” Fiedler wrote on Facebook after the Iowa Supreme Court decision. “I thought I could make the justices understand….Instead they engaged in even more tangled logical gymnastics to get around the outcome that the law plainly mandated. (For the record, the decision was unanimous.) I feel violated by their failure to acknowledge what it’s like to be a woman….I have let down all women by my failure. What a terrible day.”

“You did not fail,” responded Bennett, who sits on the Federal bench in Sioux City. “You did everything you could. I know. I read the briefs. Judicial ethics prevent me from stating my opinion about this opinion, but it ain’t pretty.” (“It ain’t pretty” apparently is his opinion about his opinion, not his opinion about the ruling.)

And Roxanne Conlin — who has at least one case before the Iowa Supreme Court right now — chimed in: The dental assistant’s loss “illustrated dramatically why it is dangerous to maintain an all white male Supreme Court. To describe the Court’s ‘logic’ as tortured would be generous….I am looking for my old marching clothes!” …

Joe Walsh of Iowa Workforce Development (IWD) is everything some Republicans just can’t stand: A Democrat, a labor lawyer, a holdover appointee of Gov. Chet Culver and a guy who cares about the unemployed.

So last week he was laid off.

The layoff followed a month or so of maneuvers to strip him of the duties that would have allowed them to fire him, that would have removed his status as a protected worker as the chief administrative law judge for unemployment claims. In the end, those maneuvers didn’t work. So they laid him off.

But it sure looked like a firing.

IWD Director Teresa Wahlert called him into her office on Monday of last week. She had some papers for him to sign. He signed them. IWD people then “walked me out corporate-style to pick up my belongings. They took my key and locked me out.”

The layoff was one of 30 in IWD last week — including, in what was surely a coincidence, Walsh’s wife, who had worked for the division since 1999 — and, according to Wahlert, five of the 30 were walked out and locked out. That’s because they were not union members or union-eligible people who benefit from a rigorous procedure for rights during a layoff. The other four were Deb Ostrem, Jude Igbokwe, Barbara Bobb and Charlotte Miller, Wahlert says. Igbokwe was an at-will employee, the others merit employees.

Walsh, who practiced labor law with Art Hedberg for 11 years, joined IWD in 2007 as deputy director under Elisabeth Buck after Chet Culver was elected, but he applied for and got the lesser job of chief administrative law judge for unemployment claims as the Culver days were ending. He took a $10,000 pay cut — he now makes around $115,000 a year — but he did it for job protection and because he loved the work of the agency, he says. He wrote more than 500 decisions and was never reversed.

He was one of three somewhat-high-profile, holdover political appointees in the agency. One, Joe Mowers, was let go early in this latest Branstad administration from his job as head of the unemployment insurance tax bureau. Another, Chris Godfrey, has a fixed term as workers’ compensation commissioner, but the Branstad people repeatedly asked him to quit, and when he didn’t they chopped his salary and pretty much ostracized him (he’s also the only openly gay member of the administration); he has sued them.

Now Walsh is gone.

Wahlert says the layoffs were because of a dramatic reduction in federal funds to IWD, which gets about 85 percent of its money from the federal government. Those funds have dropped from $179.2 million in fiscal 2011 to $113.8 million in the fiscal year that started on the first of this month. As a result, she says, employment in the agency has been cut about 25 percent — to 670 now from 905 when Terry Branstad retook the governor’s office two-and-a-half years ago.

Walsh says his department was living within its budget, including the reduced budget for this year, with him on the payroll. And Danny Homan, the president of the Iowa branch of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, told Cityview: “The state has a surplus of hundreds of millions of dollars. Branstad could have prevented this and chose not to. We should not be laying off people who provide services to unemployed Iowans.”

Walsh’s seniority at the agency might have saved him if there were newer persons in his job category. But he’s conveniently the only one in that category — Administrative Law Judge 3 — and Wahlert says he won’t be replaced. Instead, she says, she’ll take over his duties, overseeing the 14 other administrative law judges who handle unemployment claims. Her background as a top executive at big telephone companies and in basically running the operations of the late Marvin Pomerantz, as well as her willingness to lay off hundreds at IWD, doesn’t instill confidence among labor people that she has a sympathetic ear or a broad mind in interpreting labor law.

Meanwhile, the locked-out Walsh is talking to lawyers. As a so-called merit employee, he probably doesn’t have an appeal if he was laid off instead of fired. But if the layoff was a targeted termination — because, perhaps, they were pissed that he had complained that under federal rules they were trying to change his status illegally (an attempt the agency ultimately dropped) — he could have a case.

While he decides what to do, he has a paycheck for the next 20 working days — though no key to the building — and he and his wife have newfound time to spend with their two young children. …

The Des Moines Register apparently is going to start charging subscribers who want to get the weekly TV guide, which now comes free in the Sunday Register. Rick Green, the editor, didn’t respond to a Cityview email asking “how much,” and a call to the Register subscription department — which is in Louisville, Ky. — got a woman who said she didn’t know anything about it. …

The Greatest Show on Earth returns to Iowa on Oct. 15 when 84-year-old Gerry Spence comes back to Federal Judge Robert Pratt’s Des Moines courtroom to reargue a case that ended in a mistrial earlier this year. At the time, Spence said the long and contentious trial would be his last, and lawyers came from all over the world to watch his closing arguments. The jurors voted against his client — it would have been his first loss in a civil trial since 1969 — but when Pratt questioned them in open court after the foreman read the verdict, three said they disagreed. Everyone was stunned, and then Pratt ruled a mistrial.

The case involves damages being sought by two men who served almost 26 years in prison for a murder in Council Bluffs. The Iowa Supreme Court ultimately said evidence had been withheld and ordered a new trial, but the state didn’t proceed. The two won $12 million against Pottawattamie County and now are seeking $62 million from the city of Council Bluffs and two police officers.

The two plaintiffs — only one is represented by Spence — asked the judge to hear the cases separately, but last week he refused. CV

Jokers