Fired Iowa Civil Rights Investigators Nicknamed Co-workers "Pyscho" and "Rainman"

Three Civil Rights Commission employees dismissed after email misconduct.

August 23, 2011, 10:30 AM

Aug. 24, 2011— -- Three employees of the Iowa Civil Rights Commission were fired after their boss discovered thousands of gossipy emails attacking coworkers and assigning them derogatory nicknames.

The dismissal of Tiffanie Drayton, Michele Howard and Wendy Buenge came after the commission's director, Beth Townsend, said she found "vulgar" emails referring to employees with nicknames like "Psycho," "Monster," and "Teen Wolf."

"I discovered that [Drayton] had been sending these profane, obscene, vulgar, inappropriate emails as well as emails between her and two other staff members that were harassing to their peers and their management," Townsend testified at a hearing for Drayton on Aug. 5, according to the Associated Press.

"They had assigned nicknames for everybody in the agency that included 'Monster,' 'Psycho,' 'Stoned Intern,' 'Roid Rage,' 'Rainman," 'Extreme Makeover,' 'Homeless McGee,' 'Albino.' They referred to myself as 'Night Ranger.' They referred to their supervisor as 'Teen Wolf,'" she continued during her testimony.

When asked for comment, Townsend told ABC, "because the grievances are pending there is not a lot I can say because these are personnel matters."

Drayton couldn't be reached for comment.

On June 16, the three were discharged from their duties because of excessive use of the commission's computer system for emails of a personal nature, according to the Iowa Workforce Development Unemployment Insurance Appeal.

From March 1 to June 3, Drayton sent an average of 75 emails per day, according to the AP. For the same time period, Howard sent 1,600 emails.

The three are seeking unemployment benefits from the state. Drayton called the emails office chatter.

"The majority of those emails were office banter between us. It was just talk, water cooler chat between the three of us," Drayton told the Associated Press after the organization obtained copies of the emails.

"Personal emails should be kept on your personal account and not sent via your work account because everything is recorded and could be traced back to you," said Ali Swerdlow, director at the Email Experience Council.

To understand what's considering crossing the line, "you have to refer to you corporate culture and corporate policy," says Swerdlow.

An email can be retrieved and used as evidence but "water cooler conversations can be a 'he said and she said,' " said New York Civil Rights and Employment attorney Josh Bernstein.

And, "anything sent in an email, typically from work, is the property of your employer," said Bernstein.

A sample of the emails obtained by the Associated Press include:

"Psycho is flirting with the new stoned intern. She told him that if he ever wanted to come and 'yak it out' with her to come find her. Hopefully he's high enough to think it's all a really bad trip," Drayton wrote to her two coworkers on March 3.

In another email on May 3, Drayton wrote, "why was Rainman dressed up and wearing that black trench coat?" Howard responded: "Hahaha good question! He looks like a perv!"

"Sarg is dressed in all black with dark lipstick - like a Night Ranger or something," Howard wrote in an email referring to Townsend.

"I've become a local folk hero in the office because I basically said 'snitches get stitches' to management," Drayton wrote on May 27.

A judge has upheld the decision to withhold unemployment benefits due to misconduct.

In August, an administrative law judge denied Drayton unemployment benefits because the claimant was "discharged for an act of misconduct and, as such, is disqualified for the receipt of unemployment insurance benefits."

"There's no real legal standard for what's over the line. It's more a matter of common sense," said Bernstein. "An employer might overlook a fleeting expression of frustration but when it becomes clear an employee doesn't respect their superior then it will be considered more serious misconduct than someone just letting out steam."

The Associated Press contributed to this story.

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