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IOWA CITY, Iowa - A former University of Iowa employee, who was fired because she was in the car when her husband "stole" parking, now is fighting for unemployment pay and some legal professionals say she has a case.
The woman's unemployment insurance appeal raises questions about discipline of an employee who is present when a rule is broken versus being an active participant, and additional questions since the case involves a husband and wife, some say.
Danielle Hodges, 22, a former medical assistant II, was fired without warning from the university along with her husband on Nov. 7. Her husband, who is not named in the unemployment insurance appeal case file, parked on two occasions in late October in a prohibited patient-only parking lot outside the emergency treatment center and used an unauthorized code to exit , according to her case file.
Hodges committed misconduct in violating the university policy that prohibits stealing by parking in the prohibited lot and received the benefit of being closer to her work building than the designated parking lot, according to the case file.
"What was I supposed to do?" Hodges said to the Gazette.
Hodges said she expressed concern to her husband about the towing cost risk, but contends that she didn't drive, had no control of the vehicle, the car wasn't hers and she was not responsible for it, according to the file.
Administrative Law Judge Randy L. Stephenson denied Hodges' request for unemployment pay on Dec. 18. He wrote that although Hodges hadn't been previously warned, she "deliberately violated" the no parking sign and her "misconduct is substantial to deny benefits."
Hodges said she plans to appeal to the Employment Appeals Board.
Her husband worked in housekeeping and did not appeal his unemployment insurance denial, she told the Gazette.
A Nov. 7 notice of discipline signed by Geralyn Quinn, nurse manager, and Joelle Jensen, associate director in the Department of Nursing, states Hodges' actions of parking in a prohibited lot constitute a violation of the university work rule that prohibits "stealing or unauthorized possession or use of government or private property, equipment or materials."
"Because the lot is very small, your use of the lot potentially deprived critically ill or injured patients of parking immediately outside the Emergency Room, and was therefore, in reckless disregard of patients needs," the notice of discipline states.
The case file notes that Hodges had not been previously disciplined since starting working for the university in October 2009.
The university did not respond to an email or phone call seeking further comment.
A number of legal professionals consider this an unusual case.
"I can't fathom this is misconduct, not job-related misconduct, and as a passenger in the vehicle all she did was get out of the car," said Michael J. Carroll, an attorney with Babich Goldman, P.C., in Des Moines, who specializes in employment law. "I don't see how she did something that disqualifies her from receiving unemployment benefits."
"I just don't know how you fire the passenger for the wrong by the driver," he said. "What if they had other employee passengers, would they have been fired as well? Why not warn the employees first, especially if they had never been disciplined before?"
Carroll said it appears Hodges is being treated differently because she is a spouse. Absent prior discipline, the firing seemed like a "significant decision for a fairly minor infraction," he said.
Nate Willems, an attorney with Rush & Nicholson, P.L.C., in Cedar Rapids, questioned the lack of warning for Hodges, and said the connection to parking in a prohibited lot to stealing was "weak." However, the fact that the parking was for the emergency room may have elevated the seriousness of the offense.
"A lot of these circumstance seem strange to me," Willems said. "I have not had a case where the termination was for the act of another person."
Brooke Timmer, an attorney with Fiedler and Timmer, PLLC, in Des Moines, which specializes in employment law, disagreed.
She said the reason for firing is acceptable, the judge articulated the misconduct and besides, in an employment at-will state such as Iowa, employers don't need a reason to fire someone.
"I absolutely agree it seems particularly harsh and a warning would have been sufficient," Timmer said. "But, sadly employers can do whatever they want."