Stone walls (and policies) do a prison make: UDC bound by its rules

PERSONNEL POLICIES

September 2017
Ryan B. Frazier, Brinton M. Wilkins
Utah Employment Law Letter

While sitting in prison in 1642, the English poet Richard Lovelace penned his most famous lines: “Stone walls do not a prison make, nor iron bars a cage.” While Lovelace’s words about the nature and power of the human spirit are stirring and speak to our highest sense of humanity, the more mundane truth is that prisons are made from stone walls and iron bars. Prisons are also prisons thanks to the strict rules, regulations, and policies they operate under. In a recent dispute between the Utah Department of Corrections (UDOC) and one of its correctional officers, the state learned that not only the inmates but also the state itself should follow those strict rules strictly. The dispute involved a correctional facility, but its resolution provides guidance for all public employers.

The correctional officer and her cousin

The UDC’s written policies include the following rule: “It is the policy of the department that staff mem­bers shall refrain from social or business interactions with members of [an] inmate’s/offender’s immediate family.” Additionally, the UDC has a written policy requiring em­ployees to “report relationships with known offenders . . . through the chain of command, using the attached Rela­tionship Disclosure form.” The policy doesn’t state when the form must be filled out or updated.

In May 2015, Antionette Aiono—a UDC correctional officer—worked an overtime shift in a section of the Utah State Prison in Draper. Although Aiono knew she had several incarcerated family members in other sec­tions of the prison, she didn’t know until she arrived for the overtime shift that one of her cousins was in the sec­tion she was to work in that day. During her shift, she spoke with her incarcerated cousin.

Three weeks later, Aiono filled out and turned in a relationship disclosure form divulging her relationship with her cousin. Approximately a month after she sub­mitted the form, the UDC told her that she was going to be terminated for violating its policies regarding prohib­ited associations with inmates.

Aiono appealed her termination to the Career Ser­vice Review Office (CSRO), which upheld it. According to the CSRO, her termination was appropriate because it was a conflict of interest to work where a family mem­ber was housed, and “it is a common theme stressed by [the UDC] in training and throughout an employee’s ca­reer that it is inappropriate for employees to have contact with family members who are inmates.”

The CSRO also found that although the UDC’s pol­icy doesn’t specifically state when a relationship disclo­sure form is to be filled out or updated, waiting three weeks to fill it out was a violation of the policy because the form “should be filled out immediately after an em­ployee becomes aware of a conflict.”

Aiono appealed the termination decision to the Utah Court of Appeals, arguing that she complied with the UDC’s policies as they were written. The Utah Court of Appeals agreed.

Policies’ plain language controls

The court looked to the “plain and ordinary mean­ing” of the controlling policies’ language. According to the court, the plain language of the policy prohibiting contact with inmates’ family members “does not pro­hibit contact with offenders who are a part of the em­ployee’s immediate family.” The policy “precludes an employee from interacting with members of an offender’s immediate family; it does not prohibit an employee from interacting with offenders who are part of the employee’s immediate family.”

The court cited another of the UDC’s written poli­cies, which states: “Employees shall not establish, main­tain or promote a personal relationship with offenders who are not part of the employees’ immediate family in any manner that would compromise an employee’s professional role or which would tend to discredit the department.” According to the court, this policy “specifi­cally exempts offenders who are part of the employee’s immediate family” and “implies employees are allowed to maintain personal relationships with offenders who are immediate family members.”

Finally, the court noted that another written UDC policy provides that “nothing in this section is intended to prevent employees from . . . interacting with their own family members who are offenders or ex-offenders.” Thus, despite the UDC’s rationale for limiting contact with offenders, this written policy “exempts employees’ own family members.”

Given the written policies’ plain language—and given that employees have “a right to read and rely on the terms” of the policies as written—the court held that the CSRO was bound to follow its policies’ language, no more and no less. According to the court, “[Alt]hough the CSRO may have been correct that Aiono’s contact with [her cousin] was a conflict of interest of which she should have been aware, it incorrectly incorporated [that standard] into the policy.” As a result, its conclusion was based on an erroneous interpretation of the controlling policies and was incorrect.

The court also found that the CSRO’s interpretation of the policy regarding the deadline for submitting a relationship disclosure form was incorrect. The written policy doesn’t state when the form must be filled out or updated, and it was improper for the CSRO to adopt an interpretation requiring immediate action. Again, the policy’s plain language controlled, and the plain lan­guage doesn’t require immediate action. Aiono v. Depart­ment of Corrections, 2017 UT App 143.

Lessons learned

Public-sector employers face myriad issues unique to them. This case, however, has at least one lesson for all employers, public and private: Make sure your written policies say what you want them to say and what you think they say. The Utah Court of Appeals never stated that concerns about a conflict of interest were irrational or improper, just that the UDO’s written policies didn’t prohibit Aiono’s actions. If the policies had been writ­ten to cover her situation, the outcome likely would have been different.

If you haven’t reviewed your policies in a while, do it, and make changes where necessary. Be sure to consult competent legal counsel who can help you make sure your policies say what you want them to say and comply with all applicable laws.

You can contact the author at bwilkins@kmclaw.com or 801-328-3600.