The 2017-18 term marked the end of an era for the Iowa Supreme Court

By: Rox Laird on September 19th, 2018

The Iowa Supreme Court’s 2018-19 term that began Sept. 4 marks the first change in court personnel in nearly a decade, with the retirement of Justice Bruce Zager and the appointment of former District Judge Susan Christensen to take his place.

The Court’s 2017-18 term was the final chapter of the era that began after the removal by voters of three justices, the appointment of Zager, Edward Mansfield and Thomas Waterman to replace them, and the elevation of Mark Cady to Chief Justice.

In the term that ended in June, the Court decided 102 cases, although three additional cases were resubmitted for consideration this term, and one case was dismissed.

The largest percentage of cases (44 percent) the Court heard were further review of Court of Appeals decisions, and 36 percent were direct appeals from the District Courts.

The Supreme Court reversed the trial courts in 45 percent of the cases heard on appeal, and affirmed in 37 percent, with 15 percent yielding in mixed results (i.e., partially affirmed, partially reversed).

The Supreme Court reversed the Court of Appeals in 64 percent of the cases and affirmed the lower court in 25 percent of the cases. That reversal rate is not surprising, since the Supreme Court typically accepts appeals of only a small fraction of the 1,200 cases decided by the Court of Appeals each year, and the justices accept appeals on further review only in those cases where they believe reconsideration is warranted.


Question to be argued before the Iowa Supreme Court: Games of skill or chance?

By: Rox Laird on September 6th, 2018

The Iowa Supreme Court will hear arguments Friday in Iowa City in a case that could determine whether gaming devices that resemble slot machines could be placed in Iowa businesses other than bars.

The Court will hear oral arguments at 10:30 a.m. Friday in Banilla Games Inc. v. Iowa Department of Inspections and Appeals at the Levitt Auditorium at the University of Iowa College of Law. The case presents a question of interpreting the gaming statute on which the Court has not ruled before.

Banilla Games, a North Carolina company, manufactures and sells electronic games that resemble touch-screen slot machines. Players purchase credits, with one cent equaling one credit, and are challenged to match or complete sets of images on the screen. Winners receive a ticket or voucher worth up to $50 that can be redeemed for merchandise within the commercial establishment where the game is played.

At issue is whether Banilla’s Superior Skill game machines must be registered with the State under the gambling regulations in Iowa Code Chapter 99B. Gaming devices that require registration are limited by the statute to businesses holding liquor licenses, whereas non-registered devices can be placed in other locations, such as convenience stores.

The Iowa Department of Inspections and Appeals ruled that Banilla’s Superior Skill machines are subject to the registration requirement, and the agency’s ruling was upheld in a July 2017 decision by Polk County District Judge Mary Pat Gunderson.

Banilla argues in its appeal of the District Court decision that its machines are games of skill, not chance, and thus do not have to be registered.


Iowa Supreme Court, citing the Iowa Constitution, limits warrantless searches of containers in impounded vehicles

By: Rox Laird on July 17th, 2018

The Iowa Supreme Court added another category of police searches where it invoked the Iowa Constitution to extend broader protection than the U.S. Supreme Court has granted under the Fourth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.

For drivers whose vehicles are impounded and searched by law enforcement, the ruling in State v. Ingram handed down June 29 means closed containers may not be opened as part of an inventory of the contents of the vehicle without a warrant or consent. For law-enforcement authorities, it means jumping through more hoops before searching and inventorying contents of impounded vehicles.

Bion Ingram was stopped by a police officer in Newton for a traffic violation and the borrowed car he was driving was impounded because the plates and registration sticker did not match. As part of the inventory search, officers opened a small cloth bag on the floor and found a glass pipe containing methamphetamine.

The seven-member Court unanimously agreed that the search was unconstitutional, but the justices split 4-3 on whether to apply the U.S. or the Iowa Constitution.

The majority cited Article I Section 8 of the Iowa Constitution in an opinion written by Justice Brent Appel joined by Chief Justice Mark Cady and Justices David Wiggins and Daryl Hecht.

Justice Edward Mansfield filed a special concurring opinion, joined by Justices Thomas Waterman and Bruce Zager, which argued that opening and searching the bag violated the Fourth Amendment because the Newton police did not follow a “standardized local policy” in searching the bag, as required by the U.S. Supreme Court. Mansfield said there was no reason to go beyond that and decide this case based on the Iowa Constitution.

Chief Justice Cady, in a separate concurrence, pointed out that inventory searches give law enforcement officers “free rein to conduct a warrantless investigatory search and to seize incriminating property, despite the doctrine’s genesis as a means of protecting private property, guarding against false theft claims, and protecting officers from potential harm.”

Article I Section 8 of the Iowa Constitution’s says “The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers and effects, against unreasonable seizures and searches shall not be violated,” which is nearly identical to the wording of the federal Fourth Amendment.

But the Iowa Supreme Court has increasingly parted company with the U.S. Supreme Court’s Fourth Amendment holdings where the Iowa justices believe Fourth Amendment protections have been eroded. That is especially true, Appel wrote, where the federal court has moved away from requiring a warrant and toward a “reasonableness” standard.

Appel traced the U.S. Supreme Court’s evolution on inventory searches since 1973 where the Court has found inventory searches to be reasonable under the Fourth Amendment. The Court rejected a case-by-case analysis and instead requires that law-enforcement authorities have a local policy for inventory searches. Thus, the search of a backpack found in a vehicle was upheld because police in that case had such a policy, while in a subsequent ruling the search of a suitcase in the trunk of a car was rejected because police lacked a policy.

Appel wrote that empowering local law enforcement to determine the extent of Fourth Amendment protections in inventory searches is “rich with irony, as the Fourth Amendment was explicitly designed as a bulwark to restrain law enforcement in the context of searches and seizures.”

The Iowa Supreme Court, he said, took the opportunity in this case to “stake out higher constitutional ground” and “to restore the balance between citizens and law enforcement by adopting a tighter legal framework for warrantless inventory searches and seizures of automobiles under Article I, Section 8 of the Iowa Constitution than provided under the recent precedents of the United States Supreme Court.”

Appel said the Iowa Supreme Court’s holding does not mean warrantless impoundments are never appropriate, but he suggested that police explore alternatives when the goal is not investigative but to protect property, such as allowing the vehicle to be parked and locked by the driver or calling a friend to pick up the vehicle. “Impoundment of a vehicle should be permitted only if these options have been adequately explored.”


Divided Iowa Supreme Court keeps county attorney on the job, despite sexual harassment complaints

By: Rox Laird on July 12th, 2018

Van Buren County Attorney Abraham Watkins was removed from office by a District Court judge who ruled that Watkins “engaged in misconduct or maladministration by regularly committing sexual harassment” of female employees.

The court record reciting Watkins’ sexually explicit behavior included asking a female employee about her vagina, complaining that her breasts were distracting, showing her nude photos of his wife, discussing his marital sex life and on more than one occasion appearing in the office in boxer briefs.

Reviewing the case on appeal, the Iowa Supreme Court agreed that sexual harassment is unacceptable, but it concluded in a 4-3 decision that Watkins’ behavior did not warrant a court order removing a public official elected by the people.

The justices on June 29 issued three separate opinions covering nearly 70 pages that reveal how the Court was torn between respecting the role of the electorate, not judges, to say who is fit for office while not seeming to minimize sexual harassment in the workplace.

Three justices – Bruce Zager, writing for himself, Edward Mansfield and Thomas Waterman – concluded that despite Watkins’ “morally reprehensible” behavior it was not enough to remove him from office.

Three justices – Chief Justice Mark Cady, writing in a dissent joined by Daryl Hecht, and David Wiggins writing in a separate dissent – concluded that Watkins willfully created a sexually hostile work environment for female employees on his staff and that he deserved to be removed from office.

Justice Brent Appel supplied the deciding vote in a separate opinion in which he disagreed with Zager’s reasoning while concurring that, however repulsive, Watkins’ actions fell short of clearing the high hurdle for a judicial decision removing a public official from office.

The Legislature gave the courts authority to remove a public official from office for, among other things, “willful misconduct,” and the pivotal question before the Court in this case was whether Watkins’ misconduct was “willful.”

The Iowa Supreme Court in a 1913 case defined “willfully” for purposes of removal to mean a public official who acts “intentionally, deliberately, with a bad or evil purpose, contrary to known duty.”

Zager wrote that it is not a question of whether a “reasonable person would find that the public official acted contrary to his or her duties or even unlawfully” but a question of the public official’s “subjective intent to act with a bad or evil purpose” in committing wrongdoing.

“As morally reprehensible as we find Watkins’s behavior,” Zager wrote, “this is not the standard by which we need to analyze whether the State has met its high burden to establish whether Watkins committed willful misconduct or maladministration in office by creating a sexually hostile work environment. We are a court of law, not a court of public opinion.”

Chief Justice Cady disagreed, faulting the plurality opinion for looking at the case from Watkins’ perspective, not the employee’s: “Today’s decision is intimately tied to a bygone era of law that shielded men who knew better, at the expense of their female employees, who were required to abandon their jobs or forced to accept harassment as a condition of employment.”

Justice Appel wrote in his concurring opinion that while he agreed with much of Cady’s opinion, he concluded that Watkins’ behavior did not meet the “extraordinarily demanding standard” for removing an elected official from office.

“We have required what amounts to ‘specific intent’ to do wrong in a criminal or quasi-criminal way and the need for heroic action by the court to save the day,” Appel wrote. “In the end, I conclude that Watkins’s behavior approaches, but does not cross, the heroic and stringent penal or quasi-criminal standard for removal articulated in our historic caselaw.”


Felony-murder rule can be applied to juveniles, Iowa Supreme Court rules

By: Rox Laird on June 29th, 2018

The Iowa Supreme Court ruled that the felony-murder rule may be applied to juvenile offenders in a decision upholding the sentence of life in prison with the possibility of parole for a defendant who was 16 at the time of the crime.

Keyon Harrison was found guilty by a Polk County jury of first-degree murder for his role in the robbery and murder of a marijuana dealer. Prosecutors conceded at trial that the evidence suggested it was Harrison’s 17-year-old companion, not Harrison, who fatally shot the victim. But Harrison was found guilty of aiding and abetting the robbery and murder, and that is the equivalent of first-degree murder under the felony-murder rule.

The Court, in a 4-2 decision, ruled that using the felony-murder rule against a juvenile violates neither the U.S. nor the Iowa Constitution. The majority opinion was written by Justice Bruce Zager joined by Chief Justice Mark Cady and Justices Edward Mansfield and Thomas Waterman.  Justice Brent Appel filed a dissenting opinion, joined by Justice David Wiggins. Justice Daryl Hecht did not participate in the case.

The felony-murder rule, which has ancient roots in common law, is codified in Chapter 707 of the Iowa Code and transforms forcible felonies such as robbery into first-degree murder if a person is killed in the course of the felony, regardless of intent or premeditation.

By arguing the felony-murder rule is unconstitutional for juveniles, the Court said Harrison is asking for greater due-process rights for juvenile offenders than adult offenders. But the justices drew a distinction between criminal offenses and criminal sentences applied to juveniles.

While the Iowa Supreme Court has recognized that juveniles are “constitutionally different from adults,” the Court has never held that the elements of criminal offenses should be transformed to account for that difference, Zager wrote. Quoting from an earlier decision, he said the Court’s “constitutional analysis is not about excusing juvenile behavior, but imposing punishment in a way that is consistent with our understanding of humanity today.” This is achieved with individualized sentencing, Zager wrote.

While Harrison argues that life in prison is “grossly disproportionate” in his case, he was immediately eligible for parole, thus benefitting from the Court’s 2016 decision in State v. Sweet that held that juvenile offenders may not be sentenced to life without the possibility of parole.

The Parole Board provides juvenile offenders individualized analysis of the conditions of their past lives and their progress toward rehabilitation in deciding whether to approve early release, which Zager said is consistent with the Court’s approach to juvenile sentencing.

In his dissent, Justice Appel framed the Harrison case stark terms:

“The question in this case is whether an unarmed child may be subject to life in prison with the possibility of parole for participating in a marijuana robbery where a coparticipant brought a gun to the crime and killed the robbery victim.”


Defendant did not violate the Iowa Civil Rights Act for discrimination it was unaware of, Iowa Supreme Court rules

By: Rox Laird on June 29th, 2018

An applicant for a firefighter position is rejected after the employer’s consulting physician concludes the applicant is medically unqualified without disclosing the reason: The applicant had recently had symptoms of multiple sclerosis (MS).

Did the employer violate the disability discrimination provision of the Iowa Civil Rights Act?

Not according to the Iowa Supreme Court in a ruling handed down June 22. The Court, in a 4-2 decision in Deeds v. City of Marion, held that since the city was not aware of Nolan Deeds’ MS diagnosis, it did not violate his rights under the Iowa Civil Rights Act.

“The City is not required to be a mind reader,” Justice Thomas Waterman wrote for the Court. The majority opinion was joined by Chief Justice Mark Cady and Justices Edward Mansfield and Bruce Zager. Justices Brent Appel and David Wiggins dissented. Justice Daryl Hecht did not participate in the case.

The Court also issued a second, one-paragraph, opinion, Deeds v. City of Cedar Rapids, which announced the same decision with the same lineup of justices. Nolan Deeds sued both cities individually after his applications were rejected by both cities for the same reasons.

In the Marion case, the physician, who was employed by UnityPoint clinic, learned of Deeds’ MS diagnosis but did not disclose it to the city, and the city did not inquire as to why the physician said he was medically unqualified.

Thus, the Court held, that meant the city did not violate the Iowa Civil Rights Act, which defines unfair discrimination as “refusing to hire” an applicant “because of” a disability.

“When the City rescinded its job offer to Deeds, the City did not know he had MS,” Waterman wrote. “The City only knew that the physician reported Deeds was not medically qualified for the firefighter position.” Thus, he added, “We conclude that Deeds cannot show the City discriminated against him ‘because of’ his disability.”

The City of Marion had no duty to inquire as to why Deeds was deemed medically unqualified, the Court said, but Deeds did have a duty to request an accommodation for his disability. It cited a ruling from the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit saying that, otherwise, a disabled employee might keep the disability a secret and later sue for failure to accommodate.

The Court also rejected Deeds’ argument that the UnityPoint physician who conducted the pre-employment physical acted as an agent for the City and, as such, the City had knowledge of his disability. Rather, the Court said, the physician acted as an independent contractor hired by the City and she exercised independent judgment.

Writing in dissent, Justice Appel said a “flat-out” ban on anyone with recent MS symptoms as opposed to an individualized medical assessment “is precisely the kind of stereotyping that the disability-discrimination provisions of the Iowa Civil Rights Act (ICRA) are designed to prevent.”

In this case, the City of Marion avoided the Civil Rights Act with a “don’t ask, don’t tell” approach by contracting out the physical examination to a third party and then not following up with the physician to find out why an applicant is deemed medically unqualified for a job.


Iowa Supreme Court sticks with its precedent on livestock nuisance suits

By: Rox Laird on June 29th, 2018

The Iowa Supreme Court sent a lawsuit back to Wapello District Court to make factual findings on whether an Iowa law that protects livestock-confinement operators from nuisance liability violates the affected neighbors’ constitutional rights.

The Court in Honomichl v. Valley View Swine handed down June 22 held that its 2004 decision in Gacke v. Pork Xtra remains the correct standard for trial courts to apply in assessing whether a State statute granting immunity to the livestock industry violates the Iowa Constitution as applied to a particular neighboring plaintiff.

[For more background on Honomichl v. Valley View Swine, see our earlier post previewing the oral argument.]

Both parties in the Honomichl appeal urged the Court to abandon the Gacke precedent. The plaintiffs who live near hog confinement buildings urged the Court to declare Iowa’s law granting immunity to livestock confinements unconstitutional on its face, not just as applied to specific neighboring plaintiffs. The defendant hog producers asked the Court to declare that Gacke has been rendered outdated by recent changes in livestock regulations.

The Court declined to do either in a decision written by Justice Bruce Zager and fully joined by Chief Justice Mark Cady and Justices Brent Appel, David Wiggins and Daryl Hecht. Justice Thomas Waterman filed a separate opinion joined by Justice Edward Mansfield concurring with the majority holding while saying Gacke was wrongly decided in the first place and is outdated.

“Despite these significant statutory and regulatory changes, the analytical framework set forth by the Gacke factors, even with its limitations, are still compatible with present conditions,” Zager wrote for the Court.

Recent changes in state regulation of livestock confinements “would appear to benefit the adjacent landowners, at least in theory,” Zager added, but the “fighting issue remains” whether the immunity statute as applied to the Honomichl plaintiffs is constitutional. “Neither party has suggested an alternative legal framework to utilize in such cases, and the Court is unable to discern a satisfactory alternative standard to apply.”


Iowa Supreme Court splits, again, on a juvenile sentencing case

By: Rox Laird on June 22nd, 2018

Iowa’s mandatory sex-offender registry for juveniles who commit a sex offense by force is the equivalent of criminal punishment, a divided Iowa Supreme Court ruled June 15, but it’s not unconstitutional cruel and unusual punishment.

Thus, the Court continued its incremental approach to deciding juvenile sentencing cases that it has followed for the past several terms. These decisions come in the wake of U.S. Supreme Court rulings declaring that certain sentences are cruel and unusual punishment for offenders under age 18 based on the idea that juveniles are fundamentally different than adults.

The Iowa Supreme Court has taken a similar approach on juvenile sentencing, though the justices are typically split 4-3 with Chief Justice Mark Cady providing the deciding vote depending on the question. The Court followed that pattern in its ruling in In the Interest of T.H., Minor Child.

There were actually two majorities in this decision, both written by Cady, with the other six justices divided into separate camps on the punitive and constitutional questions of the sex-offender registry.

Justices Brent Appel, David Wiggins and Daryl Hecht joined the part of Cady’s opinion holding that mandatory registration for juveniles is punishment – thus making up a majority on that issue – but they dissented on the holding that it is not unconstitutionally cruel and unusual punishment.

The tables were turned by Justices Edward Mansfield, Thomas Waterman and Bruce Zager: They dissented from the majority holding that the registry amounts to punishment, but they joined the chief justice to create a majority to say the registration requirement is not unconstitutional.

T.H. was adjudicated as delinquent at the age of 14 for forcing a 16-year-old girl into oral sex against her will. He was placed in a residential sex-offender treatment program and required to register as a sex offender.

Juvenile sex offenders on the registry are generally barred from being near schools (except their own), libraries, child-care facilities, dependent-adult facilities, pools and playgrounds. Similar restrictions apply to working or volunteering around children. They must appear in person every three months to verify compliance with the requirements.

In deciding whether these requirements are cruel and unusual punishment, the Court first addressed the question of whether they amount to punishment. The Court weighed seven factors set out by the U.S. Supreme Court in determining whether a statute is punitive, and concluded that, on balance, Iowa’s registration requirement is punitive.

“The statute imposes an affirmative restraint akin to supervised probation,” Cady wrote. “It mandates the mass dissemination of offender records that are historically kept confidential to promote the juvenile’s potential for rehabilitation. And the sheer number of restrictions imposed on juveniles, given the demonstrated low juvenile recidivism rate, is excessive in light of the civil purpose of preventing multiple offenses.”

T.H. argued that the registration requirement for juveniles is the equivalent of an adult punishment, and therefore unconstitutional, but the Court disagreed, in part because the juvenile court has the authority to revoke the registration requirement when its dispositional order is terminated.

“We find it is not excessively severe for the Legislature to put additional constraints in place during the period when a juvenile adjudicated delinquent of an aggravated sexual offense is receiving reformative services, but has not yet been deemed rehabilitated,” Cady wrote.

Iowa’s mandatory sex-offender registry for juveniles who commit a sex offense by force is the equivalent of criminal punishment, a divided Iowa Supreme Court ruled June 15, but it’s not unconstitutional cruel and unusual punishment.

Thus, the Court continued its incremental approach to deciding juvenile sentencing cases that it has followed for the past several terms. These decisions come in the wake of U.S. Supreme Court rulings declaring that certain sentences are cruel and unusual punishment for offenders under age 18 based on the idea that juveniles are fundamentally different than adults.

The Iowa Supreme Court has taken a similar approach on juvenile sentencing, though the justices are typically split 4-3 with Chief Justice Mark Cady providing the deciding vote depending on the question. The Court followed that pattern in its ruling in In the Interest of T.H., Minor Child.

There were actually two majorities in this decision, both written by Cady, with the other six justices divided into separate camps on the punitive and constitutional questions of the sex-offender registry.

Justices Brent Appel, David Wiggins and Daryl Hecht joined the part of Cady’s opinion holding that mandatory registration for juveniles is punishment – thus making up a majority on that issue – but they dissented on the holding that it is not unconstitutionally cruel and unusual punishment.

The tables were turned by Justices Edward Mansfield, Thomas Waterman and Bruce Zager: They dissented from the majority holding that the registry amounts to punishment, but they joined the chief justice to create a majority to say the registration requirement is not unconstitutional.

T.H. was adjudicated as delinquent at the age of 14 for forcing a 16-year-old girl into oral sex against her will. He was placed in a residential sex-offender treatment program and required to register as a sex offender.

Juvenile sex offenders on the registry are generally barred from being near schools (except their own), libraries, child-care facilities, dependent-adult facilities, pools and playgrounds. Similar restrictions apply to working or volunteering around children. They must appear in person every three months to verify compliance with the requirements.

In deciding whether these requirements are cruel and unusual punishment, the Court first addressed the question of whether they amount to punishment. The Court weighed seven factors set out by the U.S. Supreme Court in determining whether a statute is punitive, and concluded that, on balance, Iowa’s registration requirement is punitive.

“The statute imposes an affirmative restraint akin to supervised probation,” Cady wrote. “It mandates the mass dissemination of offender records that are historically kept confidential to promote the juvenile’s potential for rehabilitation. And the sheer number of restrictions imposed on juveniles, given the demonstrated low juvenile recidivism rate, is excessive in light of the civil purpose of preventing multiple offenses.”

T.H. argued that the registration requirement for juveniles is the equivalent of an adult punishment, and therefore unconstitutional, but the Court disagreed, in part because the juvenile court has the authority to revoke the registration requirement when its dispositional order is terminated.

“We find it is not excessively severe for the Legislature to put additional constraints in place during the period when a juvenile adjudicated delinquent of an aggravated sexual offense is receiving reformative services, but has not yet been deemed rehabilitated,” Cady wrote.


Employees with employment contracts can sue for wrongful termination, the Iowa Supreme Court rules for the first time

By: Rox Laird on June 19th, 2018

The Iowa Supreme Court ruled that employees working under an employment contract can sue their employer for wrongful discharge in violation of public policy.

The ruling in Ackerman v. State of Iowa was one of two handed down June 15 by the Court involving former Workforce Development employees who say they were fired in retaliation for their criticism of the agency. In the second case, Walsh v. Wahlert and State of Iowa, the Court ruled unanimously that former Chief Administrative Law Judge Joseph Walsh can proceed in his wrongful-termination lawsuit under the State’s whistleblower statute but not under a common law claim for wrongful termination in violation of public policy.

Former Administrative Law Judge Susan Ackerman sued after she was fired by former Iowa Workforce Development Director Teresa Wahlert. Ackerman argued she was fired in retaliation for testifying under subpoena to an Iowa Senate committee about what she viewed as improper efforts by administrators to push for unemployment-benefits decisions favorable to businesses.

The issue on appeal was whether Ackerman could sue for wrongful discharge even though she was protected by a collective-bargaining agreement as well as by Iowa’s whistleblower statute. The Court, in a 5-2 decision written by Chief Justice Mark Cady joined by Justices Brent Appel, David Wiggins, Daryl Hecht and Bruce Zager, said those alternative paths do not preclude Ackerman from proceeding directly to district court.

Justice Thomas Waterman, joined by Justice Edward Mansfield, dissented. Waterman argued that since Ackerman was protected by both the collective-bargaining agreement and the whistleblower statute, this was not the case for the Court to consider extending the right to sue beyond at-will employees.

The Iowa Supreme Court 30 years ago recognized for the first time that at-will employees have a right to sue if they are fired in retaliation for actions that are considered to be in the public interest. For example, an at-will employee can contest a termination for exercising the right to pursue a workers’ compensation claim, or for testifying truthfully in a legal proceeding.

The Court has said this common-law principle not only protects at-will employees from being wrongfully terminated but it discourages employers from abusing their power in a way that undermines declared public policy and principles established in legislation.

The question in Ackerman was whether the option of suing for wrongful discharge in violation of public policy is open to an employee working under an employment contract, such as a collective-bargaining agreement that provides employees with a remedy for resolving grievances.

The State argued that option was never meant to be available to those other than at-will employees, but the Court disagreed, saying a right extended to one group does not necessarily exclude other groups from the right. Employees covered by an employment contract are entitled to the same right as at-will employees, the Court said, because claims under employment contracts are limited to the interests of the parties whereas tort claims for retaliatory discharge address larger public policy concerns.

“Nowhere in our law does a contractual employee surrender, by virtue of signing an employment contract, the right to bring a claim for tortious conduct that harms not only the employee, but also the state’s clear public policy,” Cady wrote.

Although the Court held that contract employees in general may bring retaliatory discharge claims, this ruling left open the question whether Ackerman, as a state employee protected by a whistleblower statute, is precluded from bringing her common-law claim. The Court left that question, which was not fully litigated or raised on appeal, for the trial court to resolve on remand.


Iowa Supreme Court reaffirms ‘public duty doctrine’ in rejecting claims against Humboldt County

By: Rox Laird on June 13th, 2018

An Iowa woman who was severely injured in a vehicle accident in Humboldt County cannot sue the county for negligence based on an exception to such liability suits long recognized in Iowa, a divided Iowa Supreme Court ruled June 8.

Kaitlyn Johnson suffered brain damage and paralysis in the accident when a pickup truck driven by her husband left the county road, when into the ditch and struck a concrete barrier.  The concrete barrier was constructed by a private landowner, and was on the private landowner’s land.   Humboldt County had a right-of-way easement where part of the barrier was located.  Johnson argued the county was negligent in not removing the barrier.

But the Court in Johnson v. Humboldt County said the claim is barred by the “public duty doctrine,” which says where there is a duty owed to the public in general there is no liability to an individual member of the public. The decision written by Edward Mansfield was joined by Chief Justice Mark Cady and Justices Thomas Waterman and Bruce Zager. Justice David Wiggins filed a dissenting opinion joined by Justices Brent Appel and Daryl Hecht.

This decision is a replay of the Court’s most recent discussion of the public-duty doctrine in the 2016 ruling in Estate of McFarlin v. State that said the State of Iowa was not liable for a boating death that occurred on the state-owned Storm Lake when a boat struck a submerged dredging pipe. The Court held that lawsuit was barred because the State owed a duty not to the fatally injured boater but to boaters at large who are able to use the lake.

The four justices in the majority in that decision reaffirmed it in the Humboldt County case. The three Humboldt County dissenters dissented in McFarlin as well.

The public-duty doctrine, as explained in a legal treatise cited by the Court, has been adopted by courts to limits government liability.

“The limitless potential liability that might be visited on government entities if affirmative duties were imposed on them for every undertaking has influenced courts in limiting the existence and scope of affirmative duties to which government entities are subject,” according to the Restatement (Third) of Torts. “Some courts insist on a ‘special relationship’ between the plaintiff and a public entity that distinguishes the plaintiff from the public at large before imposing an affirmative duty.”

The Iowa Supreme Court has long recognized the public-duty doctrine, saying it is “alive and well” in Iowa, according to a 2007 decision.

In the dissenting opinion, however, Justice Wiggins said the public-duty doctrine should not apply in this case, in part because the county had an affirmative duty to remove the concrete barrier under a State statute that mandates that government authorities remove all obstructions in highway right-of-ways within their jurisdiction.


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