Iowa Supreme Court Preview: Justices will hear arguments in 10 cases this week

By: Rox Laird on January 15th, 2018

The Iowa Supreme Court will hear arguments in 10 cases Jan. 17 and 18 that raise an array of issues ranging from whether a father must pay his daughter’s sorority dues to a question of a county’s liability for a traffic accident. Two other cases will be submitted to the Court without oral argument.

Following are previews of four of the cases set for argument.

State v. Michael Kelso-Christy

(Set for argument Jan. 17.)

Michael Kelso-Christy appeals his conviction of burglary with intent to commit sexual abuse because, he argues, the sex was consensual. The question, however, is not what was consented to but with whom.

Kelso-Christy used a fake Facebook account to arrange a sexual encounter by impersonating the alleged victim’s former high school classmate. She agreed to meet the “classmate” at her home and to be blindfolded. She discovered Kelso-Christy’s fraud after the encounter when she contacted the classmate she intended to meet.

Kelso-Christy argues that Iowa law defines sex abuse as sex committed “by force or against the will” of the victim, not as sex where consent is obtained through the sort of fraud he perpetrated.

The State responds that the woman consented to sex but not with Kelso-Christy. “Whether the impersonation of another is accomplished by use of social media and a blindfold or simply a darkened room in the middle of the night,” the state argues, “the fact remains that a person deceived as to the very identity of her sexual partner has not actually consented to that sexual encounter.”

Banwart v. 50th Street Sports

(Set for argument Jan. 17.)

Rhonda Banwart appeals a Polk County District Court’s dismissal on summary judgment of her dram shop liability suit against a bar that served alcohol to a woman who rear-ended her car shortly after leaving the bar.

The driver was clearly intoxicated at the time of the accident based on a police officer’s observations and a breath-test reading. The question is whether servers at the bar “knew or should have known” she was or was likely to become intoxicated when serving her. The District Court ruled there was insufficient evidence in the record to reach that conclusion.

Banwart says the case should be remanded to let a jury decide. It was uncontested that the woman was intoxicated at the time of the accident, she argues, and a reasonable person working in the bar should have made that observation.

The bar owner responds that Banwart fell short of meeting the burden of showing that it knew the woman was intoxicated. The bar staff saw nothing in her behavior to suggest she was intoxicated, and it argues the Court should distinguish between what the bar staff observed when she was in the bar versus what the officer observed at the accident scene.

Larsen v. Larsen

(Set for argument Jan. 17.)

Lynn and Roger Larsen agreed when they divorced to split the cost of sending their daughter to college, but Roger objected when bills were presented for their daughter’s expenses at Iowa State University. Roger argues that if his daughter contributed more toward her education with scholarships, student loans and part-time jobs, his contribution could be cut to zero (in fact, she’d have money left over).

Roger specifically argues he shouldn’t have to pay for his daughter’s sorority dues. Although the Iowa Supreme Court ruled in 2004 that a divorced couple were required to pay for their child’s sorority dues, Roger argues that doesn’t apply to his case because the sorority dues were stipulated in that couple’s divorce settlement but not in his.

Lynn argues in response that sorority life can be an important part of the college experience.

Indeed, the Iowa Court of Appeals, which upheld the Story County District Court’s decision on the Larsens’ college fees, said “reasonable expenses associated with the social side of college may be included in the total costs of attendance,” which may be a sorority for some, a science club or intramural sports for others.

Johnson v. Humboldt County

(Set for argument Jan. 18.)

The Court in this appeal is invited to revisit the continuing validity of a legal doctrine the justices just addressed in 2016.

Kaitlyn Johnson was severely injured in 2013 when the pickup truck she was riding in left a paved county road, entered a ditch and collided with a concrete barrier erected within the county’s right-of-way 40 years earlier by a private land owner. The Humboldt County District Court ruled on summary judgment that Johnson’s suit was barred by the “public-duty doctrine,” which means the county is not liable because it owes a duty to the public at large, not to a specific individual.

The Iowa Supreme Court in 2007 said the public-duty doctrine “protects municipalities from liability for failure to adequately enforce general laws and regulations, which were intended to benefit the community as a whole. The public duty rule is not technically grounded in government immunity, through it achieves the same results. Unlike immunity, which protects a municipality from liability for breach of an otherwise enforceable duty to the plaintiff, the public duty rule asks whether there was any enforceable duty to the plaintiff in the first place.”

The Court last dealt with this issue in Estate of McFarlin v. State two years ago in which Justice Daryl Hecht argued in a dissent (joined by Justices Brent Appel and David Wiggins) that the rule is an anachronism that should be discarded or narrowed. The question is whether any of the four justices who signed on to the majority opinion in that case have had a change of heart.

Two amicus curiae (friend of the court) briefs were filed with the court in this case: Five groups representing Iowa cities and counties, among others, argue in support of the county; a trial lawyers organization argues in support of Johnson.

Jahnke v. Deere & Company

(Set for argument Jan. 18.)

Matthew Jahnke sued Deere & Company for discrimination on the basis of age, national origin, and sex under the Iowa Civil Rights Act when he was demoted from his position as manager of a John Deere factory in China. The Polk County District Court denied Deere’s motion for summary judgment, and the company now appeals that ruling.

The core issue in this case is whether the Iowa Civil Rights Act applies to an employer’s decision regarding an employee who is working on assignment overseas.

[Disclosure: Nyemaster Goode represents Deere & Company in this appeal.]

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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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