UPDATES & ANALYSIS

7.01

Davenport mayor may remove Civil Rights Commissioner without cause, Iowa Supreme Court rules

by Allison Adams | July 1, 2021

Nicole Bribriesco-Ledger was appointed to serve a regular two-year term on the Davenport Civil Rights Commission beginning on December 1, 2017. On April 15, 2019, the Mayor of Davenport, Frank Klipsch, removed removed Bribriesco-Ledger and three other commissioners via letter. Klipsch appointed four new commissioners on April 24.

The issue in this case was whether Davenport’s mayor may remove an appointee from the Davenport Civil Rights Commission without cause. The Iowa Supreme Court ruled that he could.

Davenport Mayor, Frank Klipsch, appointed Nicole Bribriesco-Ledger to serve a regular two-year term on the Davenport Civil Rights Commission beginning on December 1, 2017. However, before the term expired, on April 15, 2019, Klipsch Consequently, four new commissioners were appointed

Bribriesco-Ledger brought an action in district court claiming that without a showing of cause the mayor had no authority to remove her. Klipsch and the City of Davenport filed a motion for summary judgment contending that the law imposed no obligation to show cause for the removal. The court denied the motion and Klipsch and the City of Davenport filed an application for interlocutory review, which the Iowa Supreme Court granted. In a 6-1 opinion issued on April 9, 2021, authored by Justice Matthew McDermott, the Iowa Supreme Court held that the Mayor of Davenport may remove an member of the Davenport Civil Rights Commission without cause.

The Iowa Civil Rights Act and the Davenport Municipal Code do not address removal procedures for appointees to the Davenport Civil Rights Commission. However, Iowa Code section 372.15 does provide procedures for “removal of appointees” from city offices. The statute provides:

Except as otherwise provided by state or city law, all persons appointed to city office may be removed by the officer or body making the appointment, but every such removal shall be by written order. The order shall give the reasons, be filed in the office of the city clerk, and a copy shall be sent by certified mail to the person removed who, upon request filed with the clerk within thirty days of the date of mailing the copy, shall be granted a public hearing before the council on all issues connected with the removal. The hearing shall be held within thirty days of the date the request is filed, unless the person removed requests a later date.

The district court ruled, however, that a more specific provision in the Iowa Civil Rights Act, Iowa Code section 216.19(2), controlled over section 372.15, which otherwise would confer removal power. Section 216.19(2) states:

A city with a population of twenty-nine thousand, or greater, shall maintain an independent local civil rights agency or commission consistent with commission rules adopted pursuant to chapter 17A. An agency or commission for which a staff is provided shall have control over such staff. A city required to maintain a local civil rights agency or commission shall structure and adequately fund the agency or commission in order to effect cooperative undertakings with the Iowa civil rights commission and to aid in effectuating the purposes of this chapter.

The district court reasoned that the term “independent local civil rights agency or commission” meant that the individuals serving on the agency or commission had to be removed “for cause.” The Iowa Supreme Court rejected this conclusion on appeal. The majority noted that a third provision of the Iowa Code, section 216.3(2), specifically stated that members of the Iowa Civil Rights Commission may only be removed “for cause,” while section 213.19(2) simply uses the term “independent” as an adjective to describe the “local civil rights agency or commission.”

The Court also referred to definitions of the term “independent” in Black’s Law Dictionary, which included: “Not associated with another (often larger) entity,” “Not dependent or contingent on something else.” The Court therefore concluded that the term “independent” does not inherently embrace the concept of removal from office only for cause, particularly when viewed against the backdrop of Section 372.15, which provides a default rule that municipal appointees (such as Bribriesco-Ledger) may be removed for any reason.

Justice Appel dissented. He argued the Court should have analyzed the historical context of the Iowa Civil Rights Act. The dissent argued that in the context of administrative law, specifically referring to an agency or commission, the term “independent” is a term of art meaning that members of the governmental body may only be removed for cause.

Justice Appel also expressed concern that not-for-cause removal could have negative public policy impact. His dissent asked whether a municipal civil rights commission where the members do not possess for-cause protection can be truly considered “independent” in the context of a complaint against the City itself.

Allison Adams is a student at the University of Iowa College of Law.

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