Iowa Supreme Court nears the end of its 2018-19 term with seven decisions remaining in the pipeline

By: Rox Laird on June 14th, 2019

The Iowa Supreme Court released rulings in five cases today, which by On Brief’s count will leave seven cases to be decided before the 2018-19 term is scheduled to end June 28. In July, the Court begins a two month term devoted to court rules and administrative matters.

Assuming all cases remaining are decided by June 28, the Court will have issued rulings in 113 cases, including attorney discipline matters, which is about the normal number of cases disposed of by the seven-member court each term.

Following are previous On Brief summaries of three of the cases yet to be decided:

Iowa Supreme Court sets new standard in employment discrimination cases

By: Rox Laird on June 12th, 2019

The Iowa Supreme Court on June 7 reversed a $4.5 million jury verdict in an employment discrimination suit, and sent the case back for retrial with a new standard to be used in jury instructions that could give the defendant a new defense.

Gregory Hawkins, a 39-year employee of the Grinnell Regional Medical Center, sued the hospital after he claimed he was fired based on his age and having had cancer surgery and treatment. The hospital responded that Hawkins was terminated due to poor work performance.

The jury returned a verdict for Hawkins, awarding $4.5 million in back pay and for emotional distress, and the judge, upon Hawkins’ later motion, added $856,954 in front pay and attorney fees.

In its unanimous decision in Hawkins v. Grinnell Regional Medical Center written by Justice David Wiggins, the Court held that the trial court erred in admitting hearsay evidence, which the justices said was introduced without foundation, was not subject to cross-examination, and was “inflammatory and prejudicial.” Finding the hearsay issue dispositive, the Court did not address the other issues the hospital raised on appeal, such as impermissible and prejudicial closing argument, and excessiveness of the verdict for emotional distress damages.

“Mail” now means “email” under the Administrative Procedure Act, Iowa Supreme Court rules

By: Rox Laird on May 28th, 2019

When the Iowa Legislature enacted the Administrative Procedure Act in 1975, the statute required petitioners to notify the other parties by mail. That meant sending a paper copy of the petition through the mail within 10 days, or delivery in person under a 1981 amendment.

Today lawyers, like most all other professionals, send letters and documents via email. And the Iowa Supreme Court, in a unanimous decision handed down May 24, said that satisfies the requirements of the law (Ortiz v. Roling Construction and Grinnell Mutual Reinsurance).

One day after Isaac Oritz filed a petition in Polk County District Court appealing a decision by the Iowa Workers’ Compensation Commissioner, his attorney emailed a time-stamped copy of the petition to counsel for Roling Construction, Ortiz’s employer.

Iowa Supreme Court: Cuts in public-sector collective bargaining rights meet constitutional muster

By: Rox Laird on May 21st, 2019

Amendments to Iowa Code Chapter 20 that substantially reduced the collective bargaining rights of most state and local government employees did not violate union members’ equal protection or free association rights under the Iowa Constitution, the Iowa Supreme Court ruled May 19.

Public employee unions had urged the Court to strike down as unconstitutional collective bargaining amendments passed in 2017 by the Iowa Legislature, which they saw as gutting their rights to collectively bargain on a wide range of issues, including wages, benefits and working conditions.

In four separate rulings, the Court rejected the unions’ constitutional argument, saying the changes were properly within the policymaking powers of the Iowa General Assembly.

“Our role is to decide whether constitutional lines were crossed, not to sit as a superlegislature rethinking policy choices of the elected branches,” the Court said. “We conclude the 2017 amendments withstand the constitutional challenges.” The justices added that the plaintiffs concede that there is no constitutional right to public-sector collective bargaining.

Iowa Supreme Court affirms Carroll Airport’s decision affecting a towering grain elevator in its flight path

By: Rox Laird on May 15th, 2019

The Carroll Airport Commission ordered a farmer to remove a 12-story grain elevator erected near its runway because it presents a flight hazard. The Federal Aviation Administration, however, issued a contrary opinion saying the elevator could remain.

The Iowa Supreme Court, in a decision handed down May 10 (Carroll Airport Commission v. Danner), ruled that local authority prevails over federal, and the grain elevator will have to be removed or shortened.

Carroll County farmers Loren and Pan Danner erected a 127-foot-tall “grain leg” to lift and distribute grain to five storage bins. The elevator rises 60 feet higher than the airport’s protected airspace.

Iowa Supreme Court upholds Utilities Board rule that eases regulation of wind farms

By: Rox Laird on May 13th, 2019

Is a wind farm with 170 windmills spread over 80 square miles a single power plant or a collection of separate power plants?

According to the Iowa Utilities Board, it is the latter, and the Iowa Supreme Court deferred to that statutory interpretation in a decision handed down May 3.

The Court, in a unanimous decision written by Justice Edward Mansfield, said in Mathis v. Iowa Utilities Board that 170 windmills on a Palo Alto County wind farm should be considered not a single power-generating “facility” for legal purposes but a smaller collection of windmills tied together by a single “gathering line.”

The distinction is important because defining the entire collection of windmills as a single power-generating facility would put the wind farm in the class of large power electric-generating facilities that require the Utilities Board to issue a certificate of public convenience, use, and necessity, which would have required an extensive study of the project’s impact on the environment and affected residents.

When are police reports introduced in a civil trial public records? It depends, the Iowa Supreme Court says

By: Rox Laird on April 11th, 2019

The Iowa Supreme Court has clarified two previous rulings that reached seemingly contradictory positions on whether police investigative reports must be made public under the Iowa Open Records Act.

The clarification came in a ruling handed down April 5 in Jerime Eron Mitchell and Bracken Ann Mitchell v. City of Cedar Rapids and Officer Lucas Jones. The Court upheld a Linn County District Court order making public police investigative reports produced through discovery in a civil lawsuit filed by the family of a black man shot and paralyzed by a white police officer in a traffic stop.

The ruling spells out how the Iowa Open Records Act and previous court decisions govern the production of police reports in such civil cases:

1. Police investigative reports do not lose their status as confidential records under the Iowa Open Records Act when an investigation is concluded; however, the records law does not  prevent civil litigants from accessing police reports through discovery. Thus, confidential police reports produced through discovery may have to be sealed by the trial court with a protective order.

2. The Open Records Act exempts from confidentiality police reports that give the immediate facts and circumstances of a crime, and trial courts should apply a balancing test prescribed by the records act to determine how far that exemption reaches into police files.

3. The Court reaffirmed its 1994 decision in Hawk Eye v. Jackson, which applied a three-part balancing test to determine whether police investigative reports should be released to the public.

4. And, the Court explained how the Hawk Eye decision differs from – and is yet consistent with – its 2012 ruling in American Civil Liberties Union v. Atlantic Community School District, where the Court said a balancing test was not necessary to conclude that the records in question in that case were confidential.

Judges must know offenders’ ability to pay before ordering restitution, Iowa Supreme Court rules

By: Rox Laird on March 26th, 2019

Sentencing courts must know how much a convicted offender is reasonably able to pay before ordering payment of restitution to the State, the Iowa Supreme Court ruled in three separate cases March 22.

In all three cases, the sentencing courts ordered offenders to pay restitution without first determining their ability to pay, which violates Iowa’s restitution statute, the Court held in a 6-0 decision. Justice Christopher McDonald, who will be officially sworn in on April 5, did not participate in the decision.

In the lead opinion, State v. Charles Raymond Albright, written by Justice David Wiggins, the Court dismissed Albright’s appeal of his kidnapping conviction and sentence but upheld his claim regarding restitution payment ordered by the sentencing court.

Iowa Supreme Court says insurance liability must be shared in a tragic shooting death

By: Rox Laird on March 12th, 2019

A couple of teenage boys are out for some dirt-bike and ATV riding at rural retreat when one of the boys is fatally injured in a tragic shooting accident. The farmhouse on the retreat where the shooting occurred is insured by a homeowners’ policy and by a separate commercial general liability policy.

Is the issuer of the commercial policy on the hook for a share of a $900,000 settlement paid to the victim’s family?

Yes, says the Iowa Supreme Court, in Metropolitan Property and Casualty Insurance Co. v. Auto-Owners Mutual Insurance Co., handed down March 8.

The Iowa Supreme Court grapples with alleged jury confusion with instructions in a comparative fault case, but declines to order a new trial

By: Rox Laird on March 6th, 2019

Jurors in a Pottawattamie County medical malpractice trial submitted a question to the court during jury deliberations about the meaning of instructions given to them by the trial judge for apportioning fault to a settled party, but the judge did not commit a prejudicial error by failing to clarify his instructions, the Iowa Supreme Court ruled unanimously March 1.

The appellant, a 33-year-old resident of a halfway house following her release from prison, sued the halfway house and an emergency room doctor for failing to immediately diagnose her symptoms of a stroke, resulting in her partial paralysis.

The woman settled with the halfway house prior to the malpractice trial, which was then narrowed to the question of the emergency room doctor’s liability. Based on Iowa’s comparative fault statute, the judge in the verdict form asked the jurors to decide if there was any fault by either the doctor or the halfway house and, if so, what percentage to allocate to either one.

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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.