Iowa Supreme Court Grants Further Review in Two Cases Involving Iowa Colleges

By: Administrator on January 30th, 2014

By Amanda Atherton

Yesterday, the Iowa Supreme announced that the court has granted further review on two civil cases against Iowa universities: Shumate v. Drake University and Smith v. ISU.

In Shumate v. Drake University, Nicole Shumate, a Drake University Law School student who trains therapy and service dogs, claims she was denied access to school facilities because she had a trainee dog with her. The district court concluded she could not bring a claim under Iowa Code chapter 216C, which governs rights of individuals with disabilities, and dismissed her claim. The court relied on the provision in that chapter stating that denying access to persons using or training service dogs constituted a simple misdemeanor to find that the legislature did not intend to create a private right of action. The Court of Appeals reversed the decision, holding that the legislature’s overall intent was to create rights for individuals and allowing Shumate to proceed on her claim would further the statute’s goals of enabling disabled people to participate fully in society.

In Smith v. ISU, Dennis Smith, a former employee of Iowa State University, sued for intentional infliction of emotional distress and violations of Iowa’s whistleblower law after he reported alleged discrepancies in the College of Engineering’s billing practices. Smith was hired in 2001 as a writer for the college. He later had several disagreements with his supervisor, Pamela Reinig, after she refused to upgrade his job classification and asked Smith’s co-worker, Eric Dieterle, to review Smith’s work. Reinig eventually verbally reprimanded Smith for insubordination in 2007. The day after his reprimand, Smith reported the accounting issues he discovered earlier that year to the Dean of the College of Engineering, Mark Kushner. Within weeks, Reinig reorganized the department and also notified the ISU police about her reprimand of Smith, informing them that he had the potential to become violent. Smith then filed a grievance, which included his allegations of financial misconduct. The university investigated and found that Reinig had embezzled more than $58,000. Reinig also made at least nine false reports about Smith to ISU police and falsified his performance evaluations. Kushner also delayed Smith’s grievance proceedings before denying it altogether. Smith won on appeal, but Kushner did not reinstate him for seven months or secure funding for his job as he was ordered to do. When Smith finally went back to work, Kushner put Dieterle in charge, despite the pair’s previous hostility. Dieterle then reduced Smith’s responsibilities before ultimately reorganizing the department and rewriting Smith’s job description to essentially disqualify him for his position.

Over the course of trial, Smith’s claims were narrowed to intentional infliction of emotional distress and violation of the whistleblower statute. The jury found ISU liable on both claims, and awarded $500,000 on the emotional distress claim. Damages on the equitable whistleblower claim were set by the court at $784,027. ISU and the State appealed. The Court of Appeals first held, as a threshold matter, that the Workers Compensation Commission did not have exclusive jurisdiction for the emotional distress claim because the alleged conduct was intentional. Defendants then tried to argue the State was immune from the emotional distress claim because the underlying conduct Smith complained of was functionally equivalent to defamation, claims of which the State has immunity from. The Court disagreed, finding the alleged conduct encompassed more than defamation. The Court also held that there was sufficient evidence of outrageous conduct to send the emotional distress claim to the jury. Further, the Court found there was sufficient evidence that Smith actually suffered severe emotional distress as a result of the conduct even though he stopped seeing a psychologist in 2008. With respect to his whistleblower claim, the Court found Smith engaged in protected conduct, but did not prove that his conduct caused the “continuous pattern of wrongful conduct” by Kusher, Reinig, and Dieterle, so the claim failed.

It’s unclear which issue(s) the Supreme Court wants to address on further review in Smith. If the time the Court of Appeals spent on each issue is any indication, it’s a good guess that the emotional distress claim will be the focus—we’ll keep you posted.

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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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