Iowa Supreme Court: Plaintiffs may sue State for damages under the Iowa Constitution

By: Rox Laird on July 7th, 2017

Iowa’s former Workers’ Compensation Commissioner has a right to sue the State for monetary damages under the Iowa Constitution, the Iowa Supreme Court ruled Friday.

The decision is the latest chapter in Christopher Godfrey’s five-year legal battle against former Gov. Terry Branstad and five other State officials over Branstad’s efforts to oust Godfrey from his job. Both men have moved to new positions – Godfrey to Washington, D.C., in a similar position in the U.S. Department of Labor, and Branstad to China as U.S. ambassador – but the suit is still being fought out in Polk County District Court and in a parallel suit in federal court.

When he returned to office in 2011, Branstad sought Godfrey’s removal based on complaints from business leaders that Godfrey had not been even-handed in handling cases involving workers’ compensation claims for job-related illnesses and injuries.

Godfrey refused to resign voluntarily, so Branstad cut the commissioner’s pay from $112,069 to $73,250, the minimum allowed by law.

Godfrey was appointed by former Gov. Tom Vilsack and re-appointed by former Gov. Chet Culver – both Democrats. He argues that Republican Governor Branstad’s campaign to force Godfrey to resign was political retribution. Godfrey, who is gay, also contends his treatment was based on his sexual orientation.

Godfrey brought his claims in Polk County District Court under the Iowa Civil Rights Act, naming the State, the governor and five other State officials individually – although the individual defendants have since been dismissed. But he also cited due process and equal protection protections of the Iowa Constitution, claiming his reputation was damaged and his property interest in his salary was violated because of partisan politics and/or his sexual orientation.

The District Court dismissed those claims, saying there is no right under the Iowa Constitution to bring a direct action against the State for monetary damages unless the Iowa General Assembly has specifically created one.

The Supreme Court disagreed in a 4-3 ruling that for the first time recognized a right to sue the State for civil damages for a violation of civil liberties under the Iowa Constitution. The seven justices were split three ways on how the decision applies specifically to Godfrey, however. The court noted that in this decision it expressed “no view whatsoever on the underlying merits of the case” in reversing the trial court and sending it back for further proceedings on two of four claims raised in Godfrey’s appeal.

The lead opinion recognizing a constitutional right of action was written by Justice Brent Appel joined by Justices Daryl Hecht and David Wiggins. In a separate concurrence, Chief Justice Mark Cady joined that opinion on Godfrey’s property interest and reputation claims but said the Civil Rights Act preempts the sexual orientation claim, thus providing the fourth vote on that issue. The Chief Justice also said punitive damages are not available to plaintiffs in such suits against the State.

Justices Edward Mansfield, Thomas Waterman and Bruce Zager dissented, arguing the majority set a dangerous precedent.

In his opinion for the majority, Justice Appel noted that the framers of the Iowa Constitution in 1857 signaled the importance of protecting individual liberties from encroachment by the State government by putting the Bill of Rights at the very beginning of the document.

“If these individual rights in the very first article of the Iowa Constitution are to be meaningful, they must be effectively enforced,” Appel wrote, and the judiciary has a duty to protect them. “It would be ironic indeed if the enforcement of individual rights and liberties in the Iowa Constitution, designed to ensure that basic rights and liberties were immune from majoritarian impulses, were dependent on legislative action for enforcement.

Appel wrote that the court has often enforced the civil rights protections under the Iowa Constitution over the years. In 2009, for example, the court in Varnum v. Brien held that a law prohibiting same-sex marriage violated equal protection. And Appel cited several other cases dating back to 1904 where the court enforced rights and privileges under the Iowa Constitution.

Appel also rejected the argument that the Iowa Civil Rights Act preempts a claim under the Iowa Constitution based on the “long-settled principle” that a constitution trumps legislative enactments. A constitution may only be amended by the people, not by the legislature.

“If we held that a statute might preempt an otherwise valid constitutional action, this would in effect grant ordinary legislation the power to cabin constitutional rights,” he wrote. “The Iowa Constitution would no longer be the supreme law of the State.”

Justice Mansfield argued in dissent that Friday’s ruling was a radical departure from the court’s tradition of requiring that damage claims require either legislative authority or a basis in common law of torts or contracts.

“In 1965, our general assembly passed the Iowa Civil Rights Act (ICRA),” Mansfield wrote. “Today, we learn that the general assembly need not have bothered. Apparently, people who believed they had a civil rights claim against Iowa State or local officials always had a money-damages cause of action, with both actual and punitive damages available. It just took from 1857 until 2017 for someone to figure it out.”

Mansfield said majority’s holding will have limited impact on Godfrey’s case but otherwise will have far-reaching implications.

“While the impact of today’s decision in [Godfrey’s] case may be limited,” he wrote, “there should be no doubt about its far-reaching effects elsewhere.” For example, he wrote, “I anticipate many claims from current and former inmates seeking damages for wrongful incarceration.”

Although a majority of the court drew the line at punitive damages assessed against the State in such cases, Mansfield said the door could eventually be opened to punitive damages based on the logic of the lead opinion.

“The lead opinion amounts to a judicial declaration of defiance,” he wrote. “The lead opinion signals that it will not be constrained by anything the legislature does and can devise any and all damage remedies it deems suitable and proper for alleged constitutional violations. This principle seems to lack any boundary.”

[Disclosure: Former Nyemaster Goode attorney and On Brief contributor Ryan Koopmans filed an amicus brief in this appeal on behalf of the Iowa League of Cities, the Iowa State Association of Counties, the Iowa Communities Assurance Pool and the Iowa Association of School Boards.]

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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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