Fraternization Policies Must Be Carefully Written

Antionette Aiono was a Utah Department of Corrections officer assigned to the Orange Street Community Correction Center. In May 2015, she worked an overtime shift at the prison known as the Oquirrh facility. The Oquirrh facility has two sections, designated as Oquirrh 1/2 and 3/4.

Three of Aiono’s relatives were in prison at the time – her husband and two cousins. Her husband and one cousin were incarcerated in Oquirrh 1/2, and the other cousin was in 3/4. Aiono knew where her husband and one cousin were housed, but did not know that her other cousin was in the 3/4 section until the day she reported for her overtime shift.

When she arrived at Oquirrh 3/4, Aiono talked with the day shift sergeant, who recognized her last name and asked “if she was ok to work there.” He asked whether her husband was in 1/2. Aiono acknowledged that he was and that she could not go there, but told him she could work in 3/4. The sergeant, who knew Aiono’s cousin was housed in 3/4, said nothing to her indicating she could not work the overtime shift.

During her shift, Aiono spoke with her cousin, and three weeks later, filled out a form disclosing her relationship with her cousin. The Department fired Aiono, concluding that she “had failed to fill out the mandatory Relationship Disclosure Form and failed to follow the chain of command.”

The Utah Court of Appeals reversed Aiono’s termination. The Court quoted from the operative language of the Department’s fraternization policy: “It is the policy of the Department that staff members shall refrain from social or business interactions with members of inmate’s/offender’s immediate family, and avoid off-duty interaction with offenders or frequenting locations where criminal activity occurs when such would tend to impair the reputation of the staff member or the Department.”

In the Court’s view, “the plain language of these provisions does not prohibit contact with offenders who are a part of the employee’s immediate family. First, the initial section prohibits social or business interactions with members of inmate’s/offender’s immediate family. This 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. Additionally, the clause prohibiting off-duty interaction with offenders does not apply to Aiono, because her contact with her cousin occurred while she was on duty.

“Next, the policy prohibits employees from establishing, maintaining, or promoting personal relationships with offenders, but specifically exempts offenders who are part of the employee’s immediate family. Most importantly, the policy states, ‘nothing in this section is intended to prevent employees from interacting with their own family members who are offenders or ex-offenders.’

“There is no question that an employee may be terminated for violating the policy. Because the policy is binding on interested parties, such parties have a right to read and rely on the terms of the policy. The plain language of the policy does not prohibit contact with immediate family members. Though the Department 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 these standards into the policy. Therefore, the decision that Aiono violated the Department’s Prohibited Association/Conduct policy is incorrect.”

Aiono v. Department of Corrections, 405 P. 3d 721 (Utah App. 2017).