IOWA CITY — A former Johnson County employee is suing her former boss and members of the Board of Supervisors after she was fired following a complaint of assault.
Last October, the Johnson County Board of Supervisors upheld the firing of Shanti Sellz, the county’s local food and planning coordinator, by Josh Busard, her boss and the county’s planning, development and sustainability director. The termination followed Sellz’s May 2017 complaint that Busard raised his voice and lunged at her.
Rockne Cole, Sellz’s lawyer, said the lawsuit covers a number of claims but primarily focuses on the reported assault and retaliation for her assault complaint.
Amy L. Reasner, an attorney who represents Busard, as well as Supervisors Janelle Rettig, Lisa Green-Douglass, Mike Carberry and Rod Sullivan, said they all deny the claims made by Sellz and believe they do not owe her any damages.
Supervisor Kurt Friese was not named in the lawsuit. He recused himself during the board meeting where Sellz’s termination was upheld because of the two had a previous business relationship.
Court documents, which include a “statement of assault in the workplace” that Sellz filed with the county’s human resources department, show that Sellz said she entered Busard’s office the morning of May 17, 2017, to talk about her use of “flex time” off. She said he asked several questions about the time off and Busard “interrupted me by raising his voice and an in a loud aggressive tone told me he would not talk about it,” according to the documents.
Sellz followed those questions by saying she needed to know as soon as possible if her flex time off would be approved because she had to leave the next afternoon on a family vacation, time off that had already been approved.
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“Josh lunged at me across his desk with his right hand, as if intending to strike me, raised in the air and told me to get out of his office,” Sellz said in the statement, adding that he stopped about 18 to 24 inches away from her.
After filing the complaint with human resources, Sellz requested to be placed under alternate supervision.
“His assault toward me has caused me to feel intimidated and concerned for my physical safety and well-being in my workplace,” Sellz said, according to court documents.
Busard told The Gazette he had no comment about the lawsuit and referred questions to Reasner.
A follow-up letter to Sellz from the county’s human resources department said that Busard and Sellz should “work through issues with the help of a counselor.”
Following the alleged assault, Sellz began experiencing physical and mental stress, including sleeplessness, nausea and panic attacks at work, according to court documents.
In June, a medical practitioner approved medical leave for Sellz. As her sick leave expired, Sellz sought more time off through the Family Medical Leave Act.
Sellz had her medical practitioner fill out the paperwork on June 13, 2017. Later that day Sellz received a “pre-terminaiton” letter from Busard for “excessive use of sick leave, and for not using the proper channel to report her sick leave,” according to court documents.
“We really hoped to avoid litigation. All along … really what she wanted was is alternative person to report to because she did not feel safe,” Cole said.
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A response from the county filed in federal court said the decision to fire Sellz was unrelated to her request through the Family Medical Leave Act.
“Sellz’s termination was not related to her untimely request for leave under the Family Medical Leave Act, and the county would have made the same decision about Sellz’s employment regardless of her untimely FMLA request,” according to court documents.
During the October 2017 meeting where Sellz’s termination was upheld, Rettig said it was the first time she’s aware of a grievance process reaching that level in the county.
“This whole thing is kind of distasteful and kept me up at night,” Carberry said during the meeting. “We kind of put this position into a department that wasn’t really ready for it and didn’t understand it to begin with. ... I think that some other issues too, personality issues. It was basically like oil and water, and that was unfortunate to begin with.”
Despite the alleged abuse incident, Sellz said she didn’t want to leave her job, which she held for two years and was the first of its kind in the county.
“I loved my job and I was really sad to lose it,” Sellz said, adding that she felt her responsibilities matched her skillset.
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