UPDATES & ANALYSIS

2.06

December 2023 Opinion Roundup

by Matt McGuire | February 6, 2024

The Iowa Supreme Court entered opinions in fourteen cases during December 2023. You can read Rox Laird’s analysis of State v. Geddes, State v. Arrieta, Harding v. Sasso, and Hummel v. Smith and Hilts v. Smith. The remaining opinions from December are summarized below.

 

State of Iowa v. Robert Paul Krogmann, No 21-1617

Opinion date: December 1, 2023

On further review from the Iowa Court of Appeals

Issues:

  • Whether the district court erred in excluding the video of the defendant’s interview with law enforcement.
  • Whether the district court erred in admitting a sheriff’s testimony that “the only reason to shoot a person would be to take their life.”
  • Whether the district court erred in excluding evidence of a prior civil lawsuit and settlement.
  • Whether the district court erred in allowing the state’s mental health expert to testify about the law of diminished responsibility.
  • Whether the district court erred in instructing the jury that all assaults are specific-intent crimes and that the jury could infer intent to kill from the defendant’s use of a dangerous weapon.
  • Whether the verdict was contrary to the law and evidence, and whether the attempted murder count and the willful injury causing serious injury count should have merged.
  • Whether costs were assessed in error against the defendant.

Robert Krogmann was convicted of attempted murder and willful injury causing serious injury after previously having been granted a new trial due to an improper asset freeze affecting his defense rights. The Court of Appeals vacated his second set of convictions and ordered a third trial, primarily due to the exclusion of a video interview conducted after the shooting, which Krogmann sought to introduce to support his diminished-capacity defense.

The Iowa Supreme Court identified three erroneous evidentiary rulings made by the district court. The Court held that the video recording of Krogmann’s interview was not hearsay and should have been admitted at trial; that Krogmann’s objection to the sheriff’s challenged testimony should have been sustained; and that the state’s mental health expert’s testimony about why the law recognizes a diminished-responsibility defense should not have been permitted. As each to each evidentiary ruling, however, the Court found that the ruling did not affect Krogmann’s substantial rights and was harmless error.

The Supreme Court rejected Krogmann’s other claims of error. The Court upheld the district court’s determination not to permit Krogmann to introduce evidence of his settlement with the victim, agreeing that the settlement did not demonstrate bias on the part of the victim. The Court found no error in the district court’s instruction regarding specific intent as an element of assault in a diminished capacity case, and upheld the district court’s instruction allowing the jury to infer intent to kill based on the use of a dangerous weapon.

Finally, the Court found there was sufficient evidence to support the jury’s findings and refused to merge the counts of willful injury causing serious injury and attempted murder. The decision of the Court of Appeals was vacated, and the District Court’s judgment was affirmed, with a remand for the redetermination of costs. Justice Mansfield authored the opinion of the Court, joined by Chief Justice Christensen and Justices Waterman, McDonald, and May.

Justice McDermott filed a dissenting opinion, joined by Justice Oxley. Justice McDermott argued that the district court’s exclusion of the video interview was not harmless error and significantly impacted Krogmann’s defense. Justice McDermott contended that the video was crucial for assessing Krogmann’s mental state, which was central to his defense of diminished capacity. The dissent highlighted that both the prosecution and defense experts acknowledged Krogmann’s mental health issues, and argued that the video provided a unique and direct insight into Krogmann’s behavior and mental state immediately after the incident, which was vital for the jury’s consideration of his diminished capacity defense.

Justice McDermott disagreed with the Court’s conclusion that the other evidence presented at trial rendered the exclusion of the video harmless. The dissent criticized the Court’s reliance on what the Court perceived to be “overwhelming evidence” of guilt to justify the exclusion as harmless, arguing that this approach effectively replaced jury deliberation with a judicial assessment.

 

Iowa Supreme Court Attorney Disciplinary Board v. David L. Leitner, No. 23-0099

Opinion date: December 8, 2023

On appeal from the report of the Iowa Supreme Court Grievance Commission

Issues:

  • Whether Leitner violated Iowa Rules of Professional Conduct 32:1.2(d) and 32:8.4(c), in his involvement with a client, Marvin Mitchell, and an entity named Foodprairie L.L.C.
  • Whether Leitner violated Iowa Rules of Professional Conduct 32:3.3(a)(1), 32:8.4(c), and 32:8.4(d) in his representation of Brooks Barney in a dissolution case.
  • Whether Leitner violated conflict-of-interest rules, Iowa Rules of Professional Conduct 32:1.7(a)(2) and 32:1.9(a), in his representation of clients with adverse interests in the Jamison and Lu-Jen case.
  • Whether Leitner violated Iowa Rule of Professional Conduct 32:8.4(d) in his representation of Elizabeth John and her son Timothy.
  • Whether Leitner violated several rules governing lawyers’ handling of client funds in the CSA Audit case.

The Iowa Supreme Court Attorney Disciplinary Board filed a five-count ethical complaint against attorney David L. Leitner, alleging violations of several ethical rules in the court of multiple client representations. Leitner did not answer the complaint, and the Iowa Supreme Court Grievance Commission recommended that the Iowa Supreme Court revoke Leitner’s license.

The Supreme Court found that Leitner violated numerous Iowa Rules of Professional Conduct. In the case involving Marvin Mitchell and Foodprairie L.L.C., the Court found that Leitner assisted in concealing Mitchell’s income from creditors, violating Rules 32:1.2(d) and 32:8.4(c). In the dissolution case involving Brooks Barney, Leitner was found to have fraudulently altered legal documents and made false statements to the court, violating Rules 32:3.3(a)(1), 32:8.4(c), and 32:8.4(d). In the Jamison and Lu-Jen case, Leitner represented clients with conflicting interests, violating Rules 32:1.7(a)(2) and 32:1.9(a). In his representation of Elizabeth John and her son Timothy, Leitner was found to have violated Rule 32:8.4(d) by repeatedly contacting a represented party and filing a petition without authorization. Finally, Leitner was found to have violated client funds handling rules and Rule 32:8.4(c) by providing a false answer on his 2020 client security questionnaire and by failing to comply with trust account regulations.

In light of mitigating factors, in particular the lack of a prior disciplinary history, the Court declined to revoke Leitner’s license and suspended Leitner’s license indefinitely, with no possibility of reinstatement for two years. Justice May authored the opinion of a unanimous Court.

 

State of Iowa v. David Gordon, No. 22-1062

Opinion date: December 15, 2023

On appeal from the Iowa District Court for Cerro Gordo County

Issues:

  • Whether the district court abused its discretion by not granting a deferred judgment in its initial sentencing.
  • Whether the district court abused its discretion upon resentencing by concluding it lacked authority under Iowa Code section 902.4 to defer judgment.

David Gordon was charged with robbery and willful injury causing serious injury. Gordon pleaded guilty to theft in the first degree and willful injury resulting in bodily injury, and argued for a deferred judgment, emphasizing his youth, lack of criminal history, and recent efforts at rehabilitation. The State argued for prison terms. The district court sentenced Gordon to concurrent prison terms. Gordon appealed the sentence, but also requested the district court reconsider the sentence under Iowa Code section 902.4. The district court initially indicated it would grant a deferred judgment but reversed after considering an appellate decision, ultimately suspending the sentence and placing Gordon on probation. Gordon filed a writ of certiorari, challenging his resentencing.

The Iowa Supreme Court affirmed the district court’s rulings. Regarding the initial sentencing, the Court found no abuse of discretion, noting the district court’s thorough consideration of all relevant factors, including Gordon’s age, the nature of the offense, and the presentence investigation report. For the resentencing, the Court held that a deferred judgment, which involves deferring both adjudication of guilt and imposition of a sentence, is different than a sentence substitution as allowed under section 902.4. The Court concluded that the district court correctly determined that section 902.4 did not provide authority to defer judgment when reconsidering Gordon’s sentence. Justice McDermott authored the opinion of a unanimous Court.

 

State of Iowa v. Iowa Juvenile Court for Plymouth County, No. 22–0326

Opinion date: December 15, 2023

On appeal from the Iowa District Court for Plymouth County

Issues:

  • Whether a juvenile court can reclaim jurisdiction over a case that it has previously waived to the district court for criminal prosecution.

I.S, a seventeen-year-old, was investigated for sexual exploitation of a minor and possession of child pornography, leading to the filing of a delinquency petition in the Iowa Juvenile Court. The county attorney filed a motion to waive jurisdiction to the district court, which was granted, with the court citing the severity of the offenses and concerns about the limited time for rehabilitation in juvenile court. The juvenile court waived jurisdiction, and a trial information was filed in the district court. Subsequently, I.S. filed a motion in the juvenile court to modify the waiver order, citing new evidence and successful ongoing therapy. The juvenile court vacated its previous waiver, taking back jurisdiction over the case.

The Iowa Supreme Court sustained the State’s petition for writ of certiorari, vacating the juvenile court’s revocation of its waiver of jurisdiction. The Court concluded that no Iowa statute or rule allows a juvenile court to reclaim jurisdiction over a case it has previously waived to the district court. Once a case has been waived to the district court, the juvenile court loses jurisdiction. Justice Mansfield authored the opinion of a unanimous Court.

 

Lon Tweeten d/b/a Tweeten Farms et al. v. Corey Tweeten, No. 22–2081

Opinion date: December 22, 2023

On appeal from the Iowa District Court for Polk County

Issues:

  • Whether the statutory bar under Iowa Code section 85.35(9) precludes further benefits following a compromise settlement between a claimant and the Second Injury Fund.
  • Whether the discovery rule tolls the statute of limitations following amendments to Iowa Code § 85.26(1).
  • How amendments to Iowa Code section 85.39(2) affect reimbursement for independent medical examinations.

Corey Tweeten, employed by his father at Tweeten Farms, injured his right arm in July 2017. He sought medical treatment and was diagnosed with right lateral epicondylitis (tennis elbow) and a deltoid tear. Medical opinions were divided on the cause and relation of these injuries to his employment. Corey filed a petition for workers’ compensation benefits in January 2020. The workers’ compensation commissioner awarded benefits, which were challenged by the employer and its carrier, Grinnell Mutual Insurance Co., on the grounds of a prior compromise settlement and the statute of limitations.

The Iowa Supreme Court held that Corey’s compromise settlement with the Second Injury Fund did not bar his claim against Grinnell. The Court clarified that the statutory bar now only extends to the “subject matter of the compromise,” which in this case was related to a different injury. Thus, the Court found that the commissioner correctly exercised jurisdiction over Corey’s claim for his right arm injuries.

However, the Court found Corey’s claim for benefits untimely under Iowa Code section 85.26, as it was filed outside the two-year window from when he knew or should have known the injury was work-related. The Court noted that the 2017 statutory amendments to section 85.26 changed the discovery rule, now focusing on when the injury was known to be work-related, rather than when it was known to be compensable.

Finally, the Court reversed the award for reimbursement of the claimant’s independent medical examination, stating that since Corey’s petition was untimely, the injury for which the examination was provided was not compensable, and thus, not subject to reimbursement under Iowa Code Section 85.39. Justice Oxley authored the opinion of a unanimous Court.

 

Scott D. Olson v. BNSF Railway Company, No. 22-0587

Opinion date: December 22, 2023

On further review from the Iowa Court of Appeals

Issues:

  • Whether the district court erred by using a verdict form that failed to separate fault and causation into separate questions.
  • Whether the district court improperly allowed the plaintiff to submit new claims during the trial.
  • Whether the plaintiff’s counsel engaged in misconduct during closing arguments that prejudiced the defendant.

Scott Olson, an employee of BNSF Railway Company, sued for damages under the Federal Employers’ Liability Act following a workplace accident. The jury awarded over $6 million in damages to Olson, assigning 100% fault to BNSF. BNSF appealed, alleging errors in the jury instructions and verdict form, among other issues. The district court denied BNSF’s motion for a new trial, and BNSF appealed. The court of appeals reversed the district court and ordered a new trial, focusing on the challenge to the verdict form.

The Iowa Supreme Court vacated the decision of the court of appeals and affirmed the judgment of the district court. The Court concluded that BNSF did not preserve error regarding the verdict form, as it failed to raise the issue before closing arguments and only raised the issue in its post-trial motion for a new trial. The Court noted that BSNF engaged in an extensive jury instruction conference with the district court and opposing counsel during which its objection could have been raised. The Court rejected BNSF’s argument that the plaintiff submitted new claims at trial, noting that the plaintiff’s complaint identified allegations of negligence consistent with his theory presented at trial. Finally, the Court found that BNSF’s failure to move for mistrial before the jury returned a verdict failed to preserve error as to the plaintiff’s counsel’s closing arguments except for one objection, which did not justify granting a motion for a new trial. Justice Oxley authored the opinion of a unanimous Court, except for Justice May, who did not participate.

 

Estate of Deanna Dee Fahrmann et al. v. ABCM Corporation et al., No. 22–0495

Opinion date: December 22, 2023

On appeal from the Iowa District Court for Franklin County

Issue:

  • Whether the district court correctly applied Iowa Code section 147.140 in dismissing a nursing home malpractice action for noncompliance with the certificate of merit requirement.

The plaintiffs, representatives of the estate of Deanna Dee Fahrmann, filed a wrongful-death action against ABCM Corporation and two of its employees following Fahrmann’s death. Fahrmann resided at a rehabilitation center operated by ABCM. The plaintiffs failed to serve a certificate of merit affidavit signed by a qualified expert within the statutory sixty-day deadline following the defendants’ answer and did not request an extension. Instead, they served initial disclosures signed by counsel, naming their expert. The defendants filed a motion to dismiss for noncompliance with section 147.140. The district court dismissed the action, and the plaintiffs appealed.

The Iowa Supreme Court affirmed the district court’s decision. The Court held that the district court correctly applied section 147.140, which unambiguously required the plaintiffs to serve a certificate of merit affidavit signed under oath by a qualified expert within sixty days of the defendants’ answer. The plaintiffs’ initial disclosures, signed only by counsel, did not comply with the statute’s requirements. The district court correctly found that there was no substantial compliance by the plaintiffs with the certificate of merit requirement, as their late-filed certificate of merit was also deficient. The Court emphasized that allowing such noncompliance would undermine the legislative intent for early dismissal of malpractice actions lacking the requisite expert certification. Justice Waterman authored the opinion of a unanimous Court, except for Justice Oxley, who did not participate.

 

Iowa Individual Health Benefit Reinsurance Association v. State University of Iowa et al., No. 22–1213

Opinion date: December 29, 2023

On appeal from the Iowa District Court for Polk County

Issues:

  • Whether state universities were members of a statutorily created health benefit reinsurance association and required to pay assessments.
  • Whether the statutory scheme as applied to the universities violated Article VII, Section 1 of the Iowa Constitution.
  • Whether the district court erred in not awarding additional damages, including late payment fees and attorney fees incurred by the Iowa Individual Health Benefit Reinsurance Association (IIHBRA), in pursuing this litigation.

IIHBRA sued the defendant state universities for unpaid assessments following their refusal to pay assessments to the IIHBRA in 2011. The universities, who provide self-funded health benefit plans to their employees, contested their membership in IIHBRA and claimed the statutory scheme violated the Iowa Constitution. The district court found the universities were members of IIHBRA and ordered them to pay over $4 million in damages for unpaid assessments. The district court rejected the constitutional argument but declined to award IIHBRA late payment fees and attorney costs. Both parties appealed.

The Iowa Supreme Court affirmed in part and reversed in part. The Court held the universities were indeed members of IIHBRA, as defined under Iowa Code section 513C.10(1)(a), and thus liable for assessments. The Court rejected the constitutional challenge, finding that the statutory scheme did not make the universities sureties or responsible for others’ debts. However, the Court reversed the district court’s decision not to award late payment fees, holding that IIHBRA was entitled to these fees as stipulated by the parties. The Court affirmed the district court’s decision not to award attorney fees and costs, in line with the “American rule” on attorney fees and costs and the absence of statutory or contractual basis for such an award. Justice McDonald authored the opinion of a unanimous Court.

 

James R. Penny v. City of Winterset et al., No. 22–1026

Opinion date: December 29, 2023

On further review from the Iowa Court of Appeals

Issues:

  • Whether a police officer’s actions resulting in a collision while responding to an emergency call rose to the level of recklessness required under Iowa law.

James Penny brought an action against the City of Winterset and officer Christian Dekker for damages caused by a collision. Officer Dekker, responding to an emergency call with lights and siren activated, collided with Penny at an intersection. Penny filed a petition alleging Dekker was reckless and that the City of Winterset was vicariously liable for the alleged recklessness. The district court granted summary judgment in favor of the defendants, but the Court of Appeals reversed.

The Iowa Supreme Court affirmed the district court’s grant of summary judgment in favor of the defendants, concluding that Dekker’s conduct was not reckless. The Court applied Iowa Code section 321.231, which offers liability protections to emergency vehicle drivers but does not shield them from the consequences of reckless disregard for others’ safety. The Court found that Dekker, while exceeding the speed limit, slowed down significantly as he approached the intersection and had a clear lane to proceed. His decision not to stop at the stop sign was deemed reasonable based on his observations. Penny’s argument, supported by expert reports, was that Dekker failed to perceive the light from Penny’s vehicle and react appropriately. However, the Court determined that Officer Dekker’s conduct, though possibly negligent, did not rise to the level of recklessness as he had no conscious knowledge of a dangerous situation nor did he intentionally disregard a known or obvious risk. Chief Justice Christensen authored the opinion of a unanimous Court.

 

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