(AP) University of Iowa President Sally Mason was well within her rights to fire the school's longtime dean of students for mishandling a high-profile 2007 sexual assault case involving football players, the Iowa Supreme Court ruled Friday.
In a 7-0 ruling, the court rejected claims by Phillip Jones that he was wrongly terminated and defamed by Mason and a law firm that criticized his response to the assault. Mason had a legitimate reason to fire Jones: She lost confidence in him after the firm's investigation found he didn't do enough to protect the rights and safety of a female athlete who was assaulted in a dorm room by two football players, Justice Bruce Zager wrote.
The ruling caps a dark chapter that has dogged Mason from almost the first day of her presidency. It appears to end five years of litigation stemming from Mason firing Jones and university general counsel Marc Mills, who declined to appeal after his similar wrongful termination and defamation lawsuit was dismissed by a federal judge in February.
Both were fired after the university was criticized for its handling of the assault on the freshman student by football players Abe Satterfield and Cedric Everson. Prosecutors said the two took turns having sex with her while she was passed out after a night of partying. While the players claimed the sex was consensual, both transferred and were eventually convicted of assault.
Iowa's response came under scrutiny months later when the student's mother alleged university officials were insensitive and tried to cover up the assault. The Iowa Board of Regents hired the Stolar Group, a St. Louis law firm, to investigate. It found no evidence of a cover-up, but said the athletics department tried to handle it informally according to the victim's initial wishes. Upset with the university's response, the victim later filed a police complaint.
Stolar's report criticized Jones for telling the victim's mother he was unaware of the case even after he'd been told about it. It also said Jones failed to use his power to move the victim and the players into separate residence halls.
When the victim reported that football players and other athletes continued to insult and threaten her during the investigation, Jones sent ineffective warning letters and did not follow up, the report said.
The report faulted Mills for micromanaging the university's investigation, having poor communication with the victim's father and failing to turn over critical letters from the victim's parents to a Board of Regents investigator.
Jones and Mills disputed the report's findings and their firings, contending Mason made them scapegoats to protect her job. Jones, who is black and had been dean since 1981, also alleged racial discrimination. Jones and Mills also contended the Stolar Group's report was defamatory.
Friday's ruling upheld a trial judge's 2012 decision to dismiss Jones' case, which included numerous claims against Mason and Stolar.
Jones failed to prove defamation, the court said, because he didn't offer "a single piece of record evidence suggesting that Stolar acted with reckless disregard for the truth at any stage of its investigation or in the preparation of its report."
Jones' discrimination claim was based on comments Mason made in a deposition in which she said she'd been told by Stolar investigators that Jones was "angry," ''defensive and belligerent" and not particularly cooperative. He argued those were stereotypes for black men, but the court found that Mason gave legitimate, nondiscriminatory reasons for firing him.
University spokesman Tom Moore said the school is pleased with the ruling.
Jones' attorney didn't immediately return a message.
Mills said the litigation illustrates the difficulty of suing state government, especially for at-will employees. He said he couldn't think of anything good that came out of the litigation.
"I have to tell clients on a weekly basis that there's not always a legal remedy for something that is unfair," said Mills, now in private practice. "That's the same advice that I have to give myself."