Eighth Circuit: Political discrimination case against Iowa law school must be retried

By: Administrator on July 15th, 2014

By Ryan Koopmans

The political discrimination lawsuit against former Iowa law school dean Carolyn Jones is being sent back down for retrial.  The Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled today that when the federal magistrate declared a mistrial because the jury was deadlocked, he could not recall the jury some two minutes later, re-poll them and enter judgment in Jones’s favor.

This is the second Eighth Circuit ruling in this five-year-old case.  In 2009, Teresa Wagner, a part-time employee in the law school’s writing center, filed a lawsuit against Jones for political discrimination.  According to Wagner, Jones failed to hire her for a full-time position because of her (Wagner’s) conservative political views and advocacy for socially conservative causes.

The district court originally threw out the case on summary judgment, but in 2011 the Eight Circuit reversed and sent the case back for trial.

Wagner presented two claims to the jury: (1) political discrimination, and (2) violation of her equal-protection rights.  The jury’s deliberations began on October 22, 2012, and two days later, on October 24, the jury asked the magistrate judge (who didn’t preside over the trial but was monitoring deliberations) “what happens if we cannot come to an agreement.”  The magistrate told the jury to continue deliberating, and two hours later–around 11:00–they sent out another note: “We are unable to come to a unanimous verdict” for either party.

At 1:00, the magistrate gave the jury an Allen charge (basically, told them to keep deliberating), and a short time after 4:00 the jury sent the magistrate another note, this one a bit more emphatic: “I DO NOT SEE US EVER AGREEING.”

In response, the magistrate declared a mistrial at 4:35 and sent the jury packing.  But two minutes later, he called them back in and asked whether their note applied to both of Wagner’s claims (the political-discrimination claim and the equal-protection claim).  The foreperson said that they had found for Dean Jones on count I (the political-discrimination claim) and after polling each juror, the magistrate accepted the verdict in Jones’s favor and declared a mistrial only on Count II.

The district court later entered judgment as a matter of law on Count II and denied Wagner’s motion for a new trial. Wagner appealed.

Today, the Eight Circuit ruled that the case needs to be retried:

[W]e hold, in a case such as the present one, where a court declares a mistrial and discharges the jury which then disperses from the confines of the courtroom, the jury can no longer render, reconsider, amend, or clarify a verdict on the mistried counts. In this age of instant individualized electronic communication and widespread personal control and management of pocket-sized wireless devices, we think this bright line rule is more faithful to precedent and offers better guidance than an amorphous rule that turns on whether jurors in fact became available for or were susceptible to outside influences or remained within total control of the court.

There wasn’t any evidence in this case that the jury was mingling with non-jurors during the two-minute period (or had even gotten any further than packing up their belongings in the jury room), but the panel concluded that a bright-line rule is the best one: Once the jurors are discharged and they leave the courtroom, they shall never return (at least not in their official capacity).

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On Brief

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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.
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