UPDATES & ANALYSIS

7.02

Iowa Supreme Court: Godfrey’s discrimination claims fail under both the Iowa Constitution and the Civil Rights Act

by Rox Laird | July 2, 2021

Four years ago, three justices of the Iowa Supreme Court said the Iowa Constitution provided a cause of action for a state official bringing a claim against the governor and his staff alleging that they deprived him the constitutional right to due process based on his sexual orientation or partisan politics. Then-Chief Justice Mark Cady, writing the controlling opinion for the Court, held that the Iowa Constitution provided a cause of action for the constitutional tort claim predicated on his sexual orientation only if Godfrey’s claim was not covered by the Iowa Civil Rights Act.

In other words, the state official could make his discrimination claim under the Iowa Constitution if the civil rights statute did not apply.

This week (June 30) the Court held that following a trial on the merits, the former state officer failed to offer sufficient evidence to support a jury verdict in his favor under either the Constitution or the statute, thus ending a protracted and high-profile case.

The lawsuit was filed in 2012 by then-Iowa Workers’ Compensation Commissioner Christopher Godfrey. While Godfrey asserted many claims over the course of the case, relevant to this appeal, Godfrey asserted then-Governor Terry Branstad violated the Iowa Civil Rights Act by cutting his pay by 35% in an alleged effort to force Godfrey to resign. Godfrey claimed the pay cut was motivated by the fact that Godfrey is gay. The governor argued he reduced Godfrey’s pay not because of his sexual orientation but because his department’s decisions were biased in favor of workers and against businesses. Godfrey also asserted a constitutional tort claim that the State and Governor denied him due process in reducing his salary.

After two interlocutory appeals to the Supreme Court, first on a question of immunity for certain defendants named in the suit, and second on the question of Godfrey’s right to sue under the Iowa Constitution, the case went to trial in 2019. A jury returned a verdict in Godfrey’s favor, awarding him $1.5 million for emotional distress for sexual orientation discrimination and retaliation, and the constitutional tort.

The State and Branstad appealed, arguing that instead of presenting the case to the jury for findings of fact, the case should have been dismissed by the trial judge as a matter of law because Godfrey failed to present sufficient evidence that Branstad knew Godfrey was gay before reducing Godfrey’s compensation. The Defendants also argued that Godfrey’s constitutional tort claim failed as a matter of law on multiple grounds. [Disclosure: Nyemaster Goode attorneys Debra Hulett, Frank Harty, Katie Graham, and David Bower represented the State and Governor Branstad at trial and in this appeal.]

The Supreme Court agreed with the State’s and Branstad’s position.

In the decision written by Justice Christopher McDonald and joined in full by Justices Edward Mansfield, Thomas Waterman, and Dana Oxley, the Court reversed and remanded the case to the District Court for dismissal of Godfrey’s claims.

In the majority opinion addressing Godfrey’s claims under the Iowa Civil Rights Act, the Court said “Godfrey failed to present sufficient evidence to establish Governor Branstad knew Godfrey’s sexual orientation at the time Branstad requested Godfrey’s resignation or reduced his salary. In the absence of such evidence, Godfrey failed to prove the defendants’ actions were taken because of Godfrey’s sexual orientation.”

The Court also disagreed with Godfrey’s claim that he had a property interest under the Iowa Constitution in continuing with his annual salary as set when Branstad took office. “Godfrey has no procedural or substantive due process right under the Iowa Constitution in continuing his salary at a particular level or in having his salary set within a statutory range according to a particular process,” Justice McDonald wrote. That’s because State law that sets salaries within a range prescribed by the Legislature for officials such as Godfrey gives the governor “unfettered discretion” to set those salaries within that range.

Justice Brent Appel filed a special opinion concurring in part and dissenting in part, saying Godfrey’s claim that Branstad knew he was gay before cutting his pay should have been decided by the jury. Justice Appel argued that numerous important issues argued on appeal required further briefing and concluded that he could not render an opinion on those issues. Justice Appel agreed with the majority’s opinion dismissing Godfrey’s constitutional claims.

Justice Matthew McDermott filed an opinion concurring in part and dissenting in part, joined by Chief Justice Susan Christensen, in which he argued the Court should have dismissed Godfrey’s civil rights claims because Godfrey, as a state official and not an “employee,” is not protected by the civil rights statute. The majority, responding to Justice McDermott’s concurring opinion, found that the Court’s 2017 opinion allowing the case to go to trial had already decided the issue of whether the Iowa Civil Rights Act applied to Godfrey’s claims.

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