Does Iowa’s public-intox law apply to your front steps?

By: Ryan Koopmans on April 7th, 2015

Tomorrow night in Decorah, the Iowa Supreme Court will hear competing arguments over whether Iowa’s public-intoxication statute applies to the front steps of a house.  

On June 22, 2013, just before midnight, Waterloo police officers were responding to a domestic-dispute call at a single-family residence and were met at the front steps by Patience Paye, the woman who had reported the incident.  After investigating, the officers decided that Paye was actually the aggressor, so they arrested her for domestic assault and public intoxication. (Paye had failed a breath test.) 

Paye was convicted of both charges, but is now arguing on appeal that she can’t be punished for being drunk on the front steps, because the front steps aren’t “public.”

The State disagrees.  Iowa law says that it’s illegal to be “intoxicated in a public place,” and it defines “public place” as “any place, building or conveyance to which the public has or is permitted access.”  Because the public is generally given access to a house’s front steps (think salesmen), the State says that those steps must be dry. 

The issue isn’t totally new for the Iowa Supreme Court.  In 2003, the justices decided, on a 5-2 vote, that the front steps of an apartment complex were “public” for purposes of the public-intoxication statute.  But the justices also recognized that the steps of a single-family home might be different.  “While the the front steps of a single-family home permit regular access for the homeowners and their guests,” then-Justice Cady wrote, “the front steps of the apartment house are a common thoroughfare through which each tenant and their guests must pass.”  “Moreover,” Justice Cady continued, “while a single individual or family may bar access to the front steps of a single-family home, no single tenant holds the right to bar access to the apartment house.”

Because of these differences, the Court left “for another day any other questions related to the character of the front steps of a single-family home.”

That day is tomorrow.  The argument will take place at the Decorah High School auditorium at 7:00 p.m.  The public is encouraged to attend.

Iowa Supreme Court to weigh in on Workers’ Compensation battle over surveillance video

By: Ryan Koopmans on January 27th, 2015

The Iowa Supreme Court announced yesterday that it will decide whether and when an employer in a workers’ compensation case must turn over a surveillance video of an allegedly injured employee.  The case, which pits business groups against the plaintiffs’ bar, has been something of a big deal for anyone in the workers’ compensation industry.

The issue arises when an employer videotapes  an employee who claims he was injured on the job. Sometimes those videos show nothing; sometimes they show an employee doing things he couldn’t possibly do–if the injury is as he says it is.  Either way, the Core Group of the Iowa Association for Justice, a group of claimants’ lawyers, says that the employee should get to see that video before he testifies in a deposition.  

Until 2012, the various Workers’ Compensation Commissioners had ruled otherwise.  But upon the Core Group’s request, former Commissioner Christopher Godfrey reversed that practice, ruling that employers must produce the video when they’re asked.  Several employer and insurance groups–the Iowa Association of Business and Industry, the Iowa Self Insurers’ Association, and the Property Casualty Insurers Association of America, among others–appealed that ruling to the Polk County District Court and (after the court affirmed the Commissioner) to the Iowa Court of Appeals.  In October of last year, a three-judge panel of that court also ruled in favor of the Core Group.  Judge Christopher McDonald dissented.

The Court of Appeals’ decision is here.  The Iowa Supreme Court has not scheduled oral argument, though the justices will likely hear the case before their arguments wrap up in April. 

The Iowa Supreme Court wants to know what you think

By: Ryan Koopmans on November 5th, 2014

The Iowa Supreme Court doesn’t just decide cases; it also regulates lawyers, and like other regulatory bodies, the Iowa Supreme Court often solicits public comments on proposed rule changes.  The Court is currently asking for comments on two issues: In September, the Iowa Supreme Court requested public comments on the quality and usefulness of the so-called Basic Skills Course, a mandatory one-day CLE for newly admitted lawyers.  And in October, the Supreme Court asked for input on whether Iowa-licensed lawyers should pay a $100 yearly fee that would go to Iowa  legal aid organizations.

My unscientific, non-Selzer polling suggests that many lawyers have strong opinions about both topics, yet the Iowa Supreme Court hasn’t received many comments.  There’s still time, though.  The comment period for basic-skills course is open until November 10, and the comment period for the legal-aid fee is open  until January 5.  Comments can be emailed to

More information is available on the Court’s website.  The order requesting comments on the basic-skills course is here, and the order for the legal-aid fee is here.  The Court’s staff also put together a report on the legal-aid fee, which is here.

The Iowa Supreme Court’s 2013-2014 Term: By the Numbers

By: Ryan Koopmans on August 18th, 2014

The Iowa Supreme Court’s 2013-2014 term is over  (with the exception of a few pending petitions for rehearing on late-decided cases), so it’s time for our annual statistical review.

The Basics. The court decided 107 cases this term, including those cases that were affirmed by operation of law when the court was evenly divided.  That is a slight increase from the 100 cases decided in the 2012-2013 term.  A majority of the cases, 58, were civil; 25 were criminal or related cases; 20 were attorney disciplinary cases; and 4 were juvenile or related cases.

Split Opinions. The vast majority of cases, 75, were unanimous; 69 of these cases were completely unanimous with no concurring opinions and 6 had a concurring opinion.   That leaves 32 opinions, or 29.9% of the cases, in which one or more justices dissented.  This is essentially the same percentage of dissents as last year when 30.0% of the cases had a dissent.  Seventeen of these cases were decided by one vote — with a split of 4-3, or when one justice was recused a split of 3-3 or 4-2.

Chief Justice Cady’s Court. Of the 32 non-unanimous opinions, Chief Justice Cady was in the majority the most often, 89% of the time, followed by Justice Appel at 81% of the time.  Justice Waterman was in the majority the least often, only 43% of the time, followed by Justice Mansfield, 46%.   Chief Justice Cady was only in the dissent in 3 cases all term, and only once in a case that was decided 4-3 or 3-3.  (That case was State v. Lukins, in which Justice Zager wrote the majority opinion joined by Justices Wiggins, Hecht, and Appel.)  That’s a change from two terms ago, when Justice Zager was the “decider,” having been in the majority in every case.

Opinion Productivity. In the 107 decided cases, 169 separately signed opinions were written by the seven justices.  Justice Mansfield was the most prolific writer, authoring 37 opinions, followed by Justices Appel and Waterman, who each authored 27 opinions.  Justice Hecht and Chief Justice Cady wrote the fewest opinions with 18 opinions each.  A similar pattern held true with respect to the 101 signed majority opinions.  Justice Mansfield again wrote the most, authoring 20 majority opinions, followed by Justice Appel who wrote 16 majority opinions.  Justice Hecht wrote the fewest majority opinions, 11, followed by Justice Zager who wrote 12, and Chief Justice Cady who wrote 13 majority opinions.  In the most closely divided cases decided by one vote, Chief Justice Cady wrote the most majority opinions, 6, while Justice Zager wrote the fewest, 2.

Justice Agreement. For the third time in as many terms, there were two relatively consistent voting blocs, with  Justices Wiggins, Hecht, and Appel on one end, and Justices Waterman and Mansfield on the other.  The Chief Justice and Justice Zager continue to fall somewhere in between, agreeing with each of their colleagues between 40-70% of the time. The justices that agreed the least were Justice Mansfield and Justice Wiggins who agreed in 13% of the non-unanimous cases.  In the 17 cases that were most closely divided, all but two were split with Justices Wiggins, Appel and Hecht on one side, Justice Waterman, Mansfield, and Zager on the other, and Chief Justice Cady deciding which group was in the majority.

Here’s a complete breakdown of how often each justice agreed with his colleagues in the 32 non-unanimous decisions (putting aside disciplinary cases).  Note, however, that some of the justices recused themselves in one or two of these cases, so the denominator isn’t always 32.   Also, for comparison, the second and third charts show how often each justice agreed with his colleagues in the previous terms.

Iowa Supreme Court Embraces the ADAAA

By: Administrator on June 30th, 2014

By Randy Armentrout

On Friday, the Iowa Supreme Court decided in Goodpaster v. Schwan’s Home Service, Inc that it will look to the 2008 amendments of the federal Americans with Disabilities Act (known in legal circles as the ADAAA) when interpreting the the meaning of “disability” under the Iowa Civil Rights Act (“ICRA”).

The ICRA contains a circular definition of “disability”: a disability is “the physical or mental condition of a person which constitutes a substantial disability.” Iowa Code § 216.2(5).  The Iowa legislature left it to the Iowa Civil Rights Commission (“ICRC”) to promulgate regulations.  In 1993, the ICRC basically adopted the ADA definition of “disability” in passing the regulations: a person has an actual disability under the ICRA if the person “has a physical or mental impairment which substantially limits one or more major life activities.”

Congress amended the ADA in 2008 to require courts to apply the “substantially limits a major life activity” test broadly to cases under the ADA.  The goal was to include more employees under the definition of “disabled.”  In particular, the ADAAA overturned Sutton v. United Air Lines, 527 U.S. 471 (1999) (holding courts must consider corrective measures to decide whether an impairment substantially limits a major life activity) and Toyota Motor Mfg. v. Williams, 534 U.S. 184 (2002) (holding “substantially limits a major life activity” should be interpreted strictly to preclude minor impairments).  The Iowa legislature has not amended the ICRA to include any language similar to the ADAAA.  However, the ICRC applies the ADAAA to disability cases under the ICRA.

This leads to the case at issue.  The plaintiff, John Goodpaster, has multiple sclerosis.  He suffers “flare ups” 5-10 times per year, during which times he experiences vision impairment and loss of control and strength in his arms and legs.  Schwan’s employed Goodpaster as a customer services manager, which requires Goodpaster to drive a delivery truck to the homes of customers.  Schwan’s terminated Goodpaster for poor sales.  Goodpaster sued Schwan’s alleging he was disabled under the ICRA and Schwan’s should have accommodated his occasional vision and limb impairments by having another employee ride along with him or picking him up when he had a flare-up. The district court granted summary judgment in favor of Schwan’s, holding Goodpaster was not “disabled” under the ICRA.

On appeal, Goodpaster argued that the ADAAA requires Iowa to interpret the ICRA to include multiple sclerosis as a disability.  In a 5-2 decision issued June 27, 2014, the Iowa Supreme Court stated it is not bound by the language of federal statutes when interpreting the ICRA.  Nevertheless, the Court held it was free to look at the ADAAA “to help establish the framework to analyze claims and otherwise apply our statute.”  The Court next examined multiple federal ADA decisions issued before Sutton and Toyota in which courts found various symptoms of multiple sclerosis to be substantially limiting of certain major life activities.   Broadly interpreting the ICRA, the Court held Goodpaster raised a fact issue on whether his condition substantially limited “one or more of his major life activities.” Curiously, the Court was able to come to this conclusion without actually analyzing which major life activities were impacted.  In a footnote, the Court states that Goodpaster raised a fact issue on the major life activities of walking and working without stating how his multiple sclerosis actually impacts those activities.  The Court reversed the summary judgment and remanded the case.

The dissent points out that this case is nearly identical to Brunker v. Schwan’s Home Service, 583 F.3d 1004 (7th Cir. 2009), decided after the amendments to the ADA became effective.  In Brunker, a customer services manager with multiple sclerosis involving sometimes daily dizziness episodes alleged Schwan’s terminated him in violation of the ADAAA.  The Seventh Circuit concluded Brunker was not disabled and affirmed the district court’s grant of summary judgment.  The Goodpaster dissent also argued that “working” is the only major life activity that should be used in the disability analysis.  Under previous ADA and Iowa case law, a person who is only unable to perform a particular job is not substantially limited in the major life activity of working.  See Probasco v. ICRC, 420 N.W.2d 432, 436 (Iowa 1988).  In this case, Goodpaster took another job as a laborer and has not shown that he is prohibited from working a broad range of jobs.

Iowa Supreme Court: Student can’t sue Drake Law School for allegedly keeping out service dog trainee

By: Amanda Atherton on May 10th, 2014

On Friday, the Iowa Supreme Court reversed the Iowa Court of Appeals and affirmed the trial court’s decision in Shumate v. Drake University.

Nicole Shumate, a Drake University Law School student who trains service dogs but is not herself disabled, claims the school prohibited her from bringing her service dog trainee into a classroom and to an off-campus event. She sued Drake for civil damages, claiming she was denied access under Iowa Code chapter 216C, entitled “Rights of Persons with Physical Disabilities.”

Drake moved to dismiss on the ground that Chapter 216C does not provide for a private right of action. The trial court granted the motion and Shumate appealed. The Iowa Court of Appeals reversed, finding that the statute implicitly allowed for a private cause of action. Drake appealed.

The Iowa Supreme Court reversed. It first acknowledged that Shumate, as a trainer of service animals, belongs to the class of persons Chapter 216C was intended to protect. The Court also agreed that permitting Shumate to file a civil suit would further the overall purpose of the chapter to help those with physical disabilities live fulfilling and productive lives. But the Court concluded that the Legislature did not intend for a service animal trainer (or anyone else, including a disabled person) to have a private remedy under the statute. The Legislature provided for private causes of action for persons with disabilities in nearby Chapters 216 (the Iowa Civil Rights Act) and 216E (addressing assistive devices for those with disabilities). The Court, Justice Waterman writing, reasoned that if the Legislature wanted to provide a similar right under Chapter 216C, it would have done so. The Court also noted that upholding a private cause of action would interfere with the Iowa Civil Rights Commission’s exclusive jurisdiction over disability discrimination claims.

All justices concurred except Justice Mansfield, who took no part. Justice Appel also wrote a special concurrence noting he did not believe allowing Shumate a private cause of action under 216C would offend the statute, but agreeing the Legislature did not intend to imply a private cause of action.

U.S. Supreme Court denies review in Iowa drunk driving case

By: Ryan Leemkuil on April 28th, 2014

The Iowa Supreme Court won’t have to reconsider its ruling in State v. Kooima after all.

Kooima held by a 4-3 vote that police may not stop a vehicle based solely on an anonymous tip that the driver is drunk. That conclusion seemed very much in doubt after the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling last week in Navarette v. California, which held that officers lawfully stopped a vehicle based on an anonymous tipster’s claim that the car had run her off the road. As we noted then, the Iowa Supreme Court decided Kooima under the Federal Constitution, so Navarette’s contrary ruling on similar facts suggested a remand was on the horizon.

Not so. This morning, the U.S. Supreme Court denied the State’s request to review Kooima. The Court didn’t say why (which is the norm), but it probably came down to a distinction between the tips in each case. In Kooima, the tipster didn’t report any reckless or dangerous driving; he claimed that he was watching a group of guys leaving a bar and “[e]verybody in the damn vehicle” is drunk. In Navarette, on the other hand, the tipster reported she was run off the road by the suspect’s dangerous driving.

That’s about the only meaningful distinction between the two cases (see our comparison here), but details matter under the Fourth Amendment. And the cops will have to keep those details in mind the next time they get an anonymous tip about a possible drunk driver.

U.S. Supreme Court splits with the Iowa Supreme Court on anonymous tips of drunk driving

By: Ryan Leemkuil on April 22nd, 2014

This morning, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Navarette v. California that officers lawfully stopped a vehicle based on an anonymous tipster’s claim that the car had run her off the road. The Court, in a 5-4 decision by Justice Thomas, concluded that the anonymous tip gave officers reasonable suspicion of drunk driving. Back in January, we wrote that the outcome in Navarette could require the Iowa Supreme Court to revisit its decision in State v. Kooima.  That seems almost certain now.

In Kooima, the Iowa Supreme Court ruled by a 4-3 vote that officers may not stop a vehicle based solely on an anonymous tip that the driver is drunk. The Court, per Justice Wiggins, held that such a stop violates the Fourth Amendment of the United States Constitution.  The State of Iowa then asked the U.S. Supreme Court to reverse that decision, and the Supreme Court has been holding the case pending the outcome in  Navarette.

Based on Justice Thomas’s decision today, it looks like the stop in Kooima may have been okay, at least as far as the Fourth Amendment is concerned.  Indeed, Justice Mansfield’s dissent parallels much of today’s decision in Navarette.  He would have upheld the stop because:

  • –The caller reported criminal activity based on “firsthand contemporaneous observations” (the caller saw the group drinking in a bar and get into the car);
  • –Officers corroborated several predictive statements in the call (they saw the vehicle arrive in town about ten minutes after the call from a bar eight miles away);
  • –“Calling 911 is no way to make a false report and get away with it” (calls are traceable and false reports are criminal); and
  • –The law requires reasonable suspicion, not certainty (maybe a group of guys leaving a bar at 11:21 p.m. didn’t drink much, but officers can stop the car to make sure).

In upholding the stop Navarette, the Supreme Court made similar observations:

  • –The caller “necessarily claimed eyewitness knowledge” (she reported being run off the road by a specific vehicle);
  • –Police confirmed the vehicle’s location shortly after the caller’s “contemporaneous report” (they spotted the vehicle 19 miles to the south 18 minutes after the call);
  • –A tipster would “think twice” before using 911 to make a false report (technology lets authorities trace the calls and false reports are punishable);
  • –Officers need not rule out all possible innocent explanations—say, an “unruly child”—before stopping a vehicle (waiting could have “disastrous consequences”).

After Navarette, Justice Mansfield’s dissent could soon become the majority opinion in Kooima. But there is a twist. The Iowa Supreme Court decided Kooima under the Federal Constitution. Navarette is the law on that. But if the four justices in the Kooima majority want the same result, and the defendant preserved the argument, they could decide the case the same way under the Iowa Constitution.

The Iowa Supreme Court on vasectomies and due process

By: Ryan Koopmans on April 18th, 2014

Must a mother who serves as a guardian for her intellectually disabled adult son get court approval before arranging his vasectomy?  Yes, ruled a unanimous Iowa Supreme Court this morning.

In February 2013, Maria Kennedy took her intellectually handicapped son, Stuart, to get a vasectomy.  Stuart was 21 at the time, but because of his disability, Maria was serving as his guardian.  The month before, Stuart had asked a court to terminate that guardianship because he thought Maria was too controlling.  Stuart had recently told his mom that he’d been having sex with his girlfriend.  That concerned her; hence the vasectomy.

The problem, for Stuart at least, was that the court didn’t get to his termination request until after the medical procedure had been done.  So, through his attorney, he amended the petition to claim that his mom had violated Iowa law by arranging for the vasectomy without court approval. Iowa law requires that guardians get court approval before subjecting their wards  to “major elective surgery” or a “nonemergency major medical procedure.”  Stuart argued that a vasectomy falls into at least one of those categories.

The probate court disagreed, ruling that a vasectomy isn’t major elective surgery or a major medical procedure because it takes just 20-minutes, doesn’t require anesthesia, can be done in the doctor’s office (as opposed to an operating room), and is reversible.

Staurt appealed.  Sterilization, he argued, is a pretty major thing, and doing it without any court oversight would violate his constitutional rights.  The ACLU and Disability Rights Iowa agreed, filing a an amicus brief that made similar arguments.  The groups also disputed the probate court’s finding that a vasectomy is  reversible, arguing instead that a “significant percent of the time” it’s permanent.  (So be certain before scheduling that March Madness appointment.)

The Iowa Supreme Court unanimously agreed with Stuart.  The justices didn’t decide who was right and who was wrong on the permanent vs. reversible debate, because they didn’t need to.  Even when considered in context, the terms “major elective surgery” and “major medical procedure” are ambiguous, Justice Mansfield wrote for the Court.  And because there are constitutional problems with sterilizing someone against their will, the Court interpreted those ambiguous terms to include a vasectomy:

[W]e have serious doubts about the constitutionality of a statute that allowed a guardian to arrange for a ward to undergo a vasectomy without any court involvement.  Accordingly, applying the principle of constitutional avoidance, we hold that a vasectomy is “a major elective surgery” and a “nonemergency major medical procedure” for which prior court approval is required.

In other words, parents must get a court’s okay before sterilizing their intellectually handicapped children.

Chiodo v. Bisignano: What happens now?

By: Ryan Koopmans on April 16th, 2014

The debate over the meaning and effect of yesterday’s Iowa Supreme Court’s decision on “infamous crimes” has begun.  This story by Associated Press reporter Ryan Foley gives a taste.

The  confusion is the result of the three-way split on the Court:

(1) Chief Justice Cady, joined by Justices Hecht and Zager ruled that a crime is not infamous unless it’s a felony that “would tend to undermine the process of democratic governance.”

(2) Justice Mansfield, joined by Justice Waterman, ruled that all felonies, but no misdemeanors, are infamous crimes.

(3) Justice Wiggins ruled that all crimes that carry a potential prison sentence are infamous–which means that all felonies and aggravated misdemeanors are infamous crimes.

The result of that split means three things.  First, because no opinion received a majority of the vote, none of the legal tests are “the law” in the sense that they bind lower courts and the State of Iowa.  Second, because five justices ruled that misdemeanors aren’t infamous crimes, that is now the law. Third, it’s up in the air whether all felonies are infamous crimes or whether that phrase is limited to felonies that “would tend to undermine the process of democratic governance.”   And unless one of the justices changes his mind or Justice Appel joins in on the next case, that issue might be up in the air for a while.

Here’s an unlikely but possible scenario that illustrates the point.  If tomorrow a plaintiff asks the Polk County district court to declare that his OWI 3rd conviction  isn’t an infamous crime (even though it’s a felony), the judge could rule in his favor.  Or the judge could rule against him. The Chiodo decision doesn’t dictate the result because the Court split 3-3 on whether all felonies are infamous crimes.

If the judge rules for the OWI convict and the State appeals to the Iowa Supreme Court, the case would likely end in a tie if Justice Appel is still recused. Assuming that Chief Justice Cady and Justices Hecht and Zager agree that an OWI 3rd doesn’t undermine the democratic process, then those three justices would vote to affirm.  But Justices Mansfield, Waterman, and Wiggins would vote to reverse, assuming they stick with their current positions.  Mansfield and Waterman would conclude that an OWI 3rd is an infamous crime because it’s a felony.  And Justice Wiggins would reach the same result because the crime is punishable by prison time.  Since the vote would be tied–3 to affirm, 3 to reverse–the district court decision would automatically be affirmed and the convict would be free to vote, assuming no other impediments. It doesn’t matter that Justices Mansfield, Waterman, and Wiggins come to the same conclusion for different reasons; it just matters that all three vote to reverse.

Because the Supreme Court would remain evenly split, the issue would still be open.  A Scott County judge could come to the opposite conclusion the  next day.  And when that case went up to the Supreme Court, the justices would, again, split 3-3, meaning that the district court judge’s decision  would be affirmed by operation of law and the Scott County resident wouldn’t be able to vote.  Yet the Polk County resident would.

That’s a lot of ifs. And, again, it’s unlikely to happen.  But it does demonstrate what the Iowa Supreme Court didn’t decide yesterday.  And it shows what could remain undecided until Justice Appel weighs in.

[Note: this post was edited for clarity]

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On Brief is devoted to appellate litigation, with a focus on the Iowa Supreme Court, the Iowa Court of Appeals, and the United States Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit.