Iowa man fired after his therapist reports conversation to police

By: - March 4, 2020 8:00 am
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The state of Iowa has agreed to pay $125,000 to settle a long-running lawsuit over the 2016 suicide of an inmate housed in the  Waterloo Residential Correctional Facility. (Photo by Getty Images)

A Des Moines man who was fired after confiding in his therapist that he wanted to kill his bosses is entitled to collect unemployment benefits, an Iowa judge has ruled.

Jesus Vasquez was fired in October by the Kansas City Sausage Co., where he had worked since April 2018.

According to state records, Vasquez met with his mental health therapist on Oct. 4, 2019. Believing his conversation with the therapist would be kept confidential, Vasquez said he wanted to kill or harm his two supervisors. He also volunteered to go into inpatient mental health treatment that same day.

Within hours, Des Moines police officers notified Kansas City Sausage Co. they had received a report from a therapist indicating Vasquez said he wished he could kill his two supervisors. The company immediately deactivated Vasquez’s security-badge clearance so he couldn’t access the building and, five days later, it fired Vasquez over the phone due to the statements he made to the therapist.

Vasquez subsequently filed for unemployment benefits, which the company challenged, citing violations of its workplace-violence policy.

The matter eventually went before Administrative Law Judge Adrienne C. Williamson, who sided with Vasquez.

In her ruling, Williamson wrote that Vasquez was “discharged for sharing homicidal thoughts he had towards his supervisors with his therapist outside of work.” This was not “a violation of the employer’s anti-violence policy and it was not done with intention or knowledge that the employer’s image would suffer. (Vasquez) did not assault or threaten to assault his supervisors; (he) merely shared his feelings and thoughts with his therapist.”

Judge Williamson wrote that Vasquez “did not believe that anyone other than his therapist would learn of his feelings towards his supervisors. Therefore, he did not have any intent to harm his supervisors, put his supervisors in fear of being harmed or damage employer’s image.”

The judge noted that Vasquez had “sought mental health treatment with a therapist,” then made statements to that therapist “in what he believed was a confidential setting,” and then agreed to inpatient mental health treatment.

Vasquez, Williamson ruled, “acted appropriately and responsibly,” and while his conduct may have justified his termination, it did not amount to the sort of job-related misconduct that warrants the denial of unemployment benefits.

Typically, therapists and other mental health professionals are ethically obligated to keep confidential all of the information shared with them by patients. But they can — and, in some states, they must — breach confidentiality in cases where a patient goes beyond expressing a nonspecific desire to harm someone and instead articulates actual intent, or plans, to harm themselves or someone specific.

Under legislation that was signed into law in March 2018, that sort of disclosure to law enforcement isn’t required in Iowa,  but it is allowed when three specific criteria are met: The disclosure must be made in good faith; the disclosure must be necessary to prevent or lessen serious and imminent threat to the health or safety of the individual or to a clearly identifiable victim or victims; and the patient must have the apparent intent and ability to carry out the threat.

The Iowa Board of Behavioral Science Examiners warns people seeking mental health treatment that “if you make statements that indicate you intend to harm yourself or others, the mental health counselor, or marriage and family therapist, may report that information to medical (professionals) or law enforcement.”

Among the other recent cases involving Iowans seeking unemployment benefits:

  • Jenifer Shadle, a licensed practical nurse, resigned from the Spirit Lake oral surgery practice of Dr. Karen Potaczek in the middle of a medical procedure on a patient. On Jan. 13, Shadle was assisting Potaczek with a dental procedure while their patient was under general anesthesia. Potaczek noticed that Shadle was receiving messages on an electronic wrist device while they working on the patient. She reminded Shadle she was not allowed to be communicating with others while assisting with a medical procedure. Shadle objected and began arguing. Potaczek told her to remove the device from her wrist and Shadle responded, “If I can’t wear my Fitbit, then I quit.” She removed her gloves and left the room. A few minutes later, she returned and allegedly began yelling at Potaczek, who told her to leave so the patient’s procedure could continue without interruption. Shadle was denied unemployment benefits.
  • Roberti Hinojosa was fired from the Swift Pork Co. in January after the company accused him of violating policy by failing to end the suffering of a hog. The company alleged Hinojosa observed a hog bleeding, gasping for air and trying unsuccessfully to stand up and did nothing. When a co-worker confronted Hinojosa about the situation, Hinojosa allegedly said he wasn’t going to kill the hog for fear of getting blood on his clothes. Video surveillance footage showed Hinojosa allowing the animal to suffer for roughly 20 minutes before a supervisor intervened and killed the animal, the company said. Hinojosa was denied unemployment benefits.
  • John Schleef was fired in January from his job as a truck driver with Ten Corp. after he received a text message from his boss, who had asked to meet with him to discuss his future with the company. Schleef forwarded the message to a colleague, commenting, “What fucher.” The colleague forwarded that text to the boss, who fired Schleef after concluding Schleef had attempted to call him a profane name but misspelled it. Schleef said he was simply attempting to write, “What future,” and he was awarded benefits.
  • Skylar Damm was fired in January from her job as a doggie day care provider at Fast Tracks canine activity center. Damm was responsible for caring for dogs at the center and was fired after her boss took a photo of her sleeping on the job for 40 minutes. She was denied unemployment benefits.
  • Tonie Curran was awarded unemployment benefits after being fired in December from the Walmart store in Carroll, Iowa. Administrative Law Judge James Timberland ruled that the conduct of Curran’s bosses in firing Curran “was not merely unreasonable from start to finish, but egregious and reprehensible.” He found that Curran, who has a learning disability, performed his job in good faith and to the best of his ability, but that his bosses had “willfully and wantonly disregarded his disability issues and subjected him to increasingly heavy-handed and unreasonable treatment” during a disciplinary meeting.
  • Ronald Nichols was fired in December from the Git N Go Convenience Store in Hampton after he twice left work and went home without first stopping at the bank to drop off the day’s cash deposits. When questioned several days later, Nichols allegedly told his boss he was too tired to deposit the money, which totaled $2,600, so he took it home. He was denied unemployment benefits and criminal charges are pending.
  • Ronny Nefgzer was fired in January from Genesis Medical Systems, where she worked as a lab technician, for violating the Health Information Portability and Accountability Act. She was accused of accessing a co-worker’s medical file and then telling other employees there could be an issue with an employee working in the hospital while they had a contagious disease or infection. Nefgzer said she accessed the co-worker’s file with that individual’s permission, and she was awarded unemployment benefits.
  • Karla Iversen was fired in January from Broadlawns Medical Center where she worked as a behavioral health representative. She was fired after loudly berating a colleague, in front of patients, for her work performance. In 2018, she had received a written warning for bullying and threatening behavior directed toward a patient. In 2019, she was warned for being loud and harsh with a patient. She was denied benefits.
  • Rebecca Petrick was fired in November from Renal Treatment Centers where she worked as a registered nurse. In October, a patient gave Petrick a bottle of blood thinner medication that had been prescribed to him and requested a refill. The dosage listed on the prescription was for three milligrams per day. Attached to the bottle was a Post-It note of unknown origin suggesting the dosage should be nine milligrams per day. Petrick phoned in the prescription refill for the larger dosage listed on the note. The pharmacist asked Petrick three times to verify the dosage, which she did. Two other nurses later caught the error, which could have resulted in the patient being seriously harmed. She was denied unemployment benefits.
  • Jonathan Littrell resigned from S & H Electric after the owner allegedly began calling him names, cursing him, berating him for his work performance, kicking garbage cans and throwing items in the shop where they worked. The owner allegedly told Littrell he should quit and added, “I know why you won’t — because you’re too old to find a good job out there,” and then told a visibly shaking Littrell, “You’re as nervous as a panda bear with boxing gloves trying to j— off.” Littrell quit and was awarded unemployment benefits due to intolerable working conditions. He also filed a complaint with the Iowa Civil Rights Commission.

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Clark Kauffman
Clark Kauffman

Deputy Editor Clark Kauffman has worked during the past 30 years as both an investigative reporter and editorial writer at two of Iowa’s largest newspapers, the Des Moines Register and the Quad-City Times. He has won numerous state and national awards for reporting and editorial writing. His 2004 series on prosecutorial misconduct in Iowa was named a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for Investigative Reporting. From October 2018 through November 2019, Kauffman was an assistant ombudsman for the Iowa Office of Ombudsman, an agency that investigates citizens’ complaints of wrongdoing within state and local government agencies.

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