UPDATES & ANALYSIS

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Iowa Supreme Court to hear arguments in 11 cases Feb. 21 and 22

by Rox Laird | February 17, 2023

The Iowa Supreme Court will hear arguments in 11 cases Feb. 21 and Feb 22. Two additional cases will be submitted to the Court without oral arguments. Go to On Brief’s “Cases in the Pipeline” page to read the briefs submitted to the Court in these cases. Following are brief summaries of those cases.

 

Venckus v. City of Iowa City and Andrew Rich

Scheduled for oral argument Feb. 21, 9 a.m.

Question: May a tort claim be brought against a municipality under the Iowa Constitution absent a statutory remedy?

Joshua Venckus appeals the Johnson County District Court’s dismissal on summary judgment of his common-law and constitutional claims against the Iowa City Police Detective Andrew Rich and the City of Iowa City for malicious prosecution after he was found not guilty by a jury of second degree sexual abuse for a 2013 sexual assault on the basis of an investigation by Rich. Venckus argues the trial court erred in holding tort claims may not be brought against municipalities under the Iowa Constitution. Venckus argues he is able bring his constitutional claim against Rich and the city under the Iowa Supreme Court’s decision in Godfrey v. State of Iowa (2017) and subsequent cases recognizing a tort claim under the Iowa Constitution where the Legislature had not provided an adequate remedy.

 

Martin v. Tovar and the City of Muscatine

Scheduled for oral argument Feb. 21, 9 a.m.

Question: Can a city be held responsible for an offense committed by a police officer acting outside his official duties while on duty and in uniform?

Shari Martin appeals the Muscatine County District Court’s summary judgment dismissal of her claim against the City of Muscatine for the acts of its police officer who, while on duty, sexually assaulted and battered Martin. Officer Thomas Tovar, who resigned following his conviction for third-degree sexual abuse, was on duty and in uniform when he gave Martin a ride to her hotel after Muscatine Police stopped a car in which she was a passenger. Martin argues the City of Muscatine is liable through vicarious liability for her sexual assault by Tovar. She urges the Iowa Supreme Court to adopt a theory of agency under the doctrine of respondeat superior in which an offending officer creates a relationship with a member of the public within the context of the officer’s official duties.

 

Des Moines Civil and Human Rights Commission v. Knueven

Scheduled for oral argument Feb. 21, 9 a.m.

Question: Was a landlord guilty of illegally “steering” potential renters away from certain areas based on their race or religion?

Patrick Knueven appeals the Polk County District Court denial of his motion for a directed verdict and new trial following a jury finding that he was guilty of “steering” prospective tenants away from rental properties on the basis of religion and national origin. Des Moines Municipal Code section 62-101(a) makes it an illegal discriminatory housing practice to “steer or channel” a prospective buyer into or away from a particular area because of their race, sex, sexual orientation, gender identity, creed, religion, national origin, ancestry, color, disability, familiar status, or source of income. On appeal, Knueven argues there is no evidence he refused to sell, lease or rent a dwelling, or that he refused to show a dwelling, based on one or more protected class, and the District Court erred when it failed to instruct the jury on the elements required to establish a legal claim of “steering.”

 

Konchar v. Pins, St. Joseph’s Church, Roman Catholic Diocese of Des Moines

Scheduled for oral argument Feb. 21, 1:30 p.m.

[Disclosure: Nyemaster Goode attorneys Frank Harty, Brianna Long, and Haley Hermanson represent the defendants/appellees in this case.]

Question: Did a trial judge err in dismissing claims brought by a fired parochial school principal and in allowing certain evidence regarding her reputation?

Phyllis Konchar appeals a Polk County jury verdict for defendants-appellees on one of her defamation claims and the trial court’s dismissal on summary judgment of her remaining claims alleging breach of contract and a second defamation claim after she was fired as St. Joseph’s school principal. Konchar argues the trial court erred in allowing evidence regarding her reputation for which proper foundation was not laid, and that it erred in granting summary judgment for defendants with regard to her defamation claim as it relates to the statement that two prior pastors had been consulted and implied that they had approved the termination. On that defamation issue, the District Court said, “Unlike the allegations of employment misconduct that have a secular meaning, asking a jury to decide the prior pastors’ opinions regarding Konchar’s suitability would require an ‘impermissible inquiry into church doctrine and discipline.’”

Appellees argue that the decision can be affirmed on the alternative ground that the ministerial exception doctrine precluded the trial court from adjudicating claims involving the removal of Konchar because a Catholic school principal is a minister of the church for purposes of the doctrine.

 

LS Power Midcontinent and Southwest Transmission v. State of Iowa, Iowa Utilities Board, et al.

Scheduled for oral argument Feb. 21, 1:30 p.m.

Question: Do two out-of-state power transmission companies have standing to bring suit against the State for a recent statute that gives first right of refusal to certain Iowa power companies?

LS Power Midcontinent and Southwest Transmission seek further review of a July 8 Iowa Court of Appeals ruling affirming the Polk County District Court’s dismissal of the Missouri power companies’ suit against the State. They claimed the Iowa Legislature violated equal protection and other provisions of the Iowa Constitution with 2020 legislation that gave owners of current electric transmission in Iowa the first right of refusal to build infrastructure that would connect to new projects. The Court of Appeals agreed with the District Court that plaintiffs lack standing because they failed to show they were injured because they could not point to a specific project they had been denied as a result of the 2020 legislation.

Amicus curiae briefs in support of the plaintiffs-appellants were filed with the Court by the Coalition of MISO Transmission Customers; NextEra Energy Transmission; and the Resale Power Group of Iowa. [Disclosure: Lynn C. Herndon of Nyemaster Goode represented the Coalition of MISO Transmission Customers on the coalition’s amicus brief.]

 

Anderson v. Woodbury County District Court

Will be submitted to the Court without oral argument Feb. 21.

Question: Was a mandatory minimum sentence for third-offense domestic abuse improperly imposed by a trial court?

J.D. Anderson appeals the Woodbury County District Court’s denial of his motion to correct an illegal sentence for domestic abuse assault. Because Anderson had two prior offenses for domestic abuse assault, the District Court sentenced Anderson to a mandatory minimum prison as required by Iowa Code sections 902.13 and 708.2A(4), which provide that a person convicted of a third or subsequent offense of domestic abuse assault must serve a mandatory minimum sentence. Anderson argues his sentence is improper because neither of his two earlier convictions were third offenses – that is, not a “third-third” offense – and thus the mandatory minimum requirement does not apply.

 

Belin, et al. v. Reynolds, et al.

Scheduled for oral argument Feb. 22, 9 a.m.

Question: Did the governor’s office violate the Iowa Open Records Act by failing to release public records in a timely manner?

Gov. Kim Reynolds and current or former members of her staff appeal the Polk County District Court’s denial of their motion to dismiss a suit brought by journalists Laura Belin, Clark Kauffman, and Randy Evans and their respective media organizations claiming the governor’s office violated Chapter 22, the Iowa Open Meetings Act, by failing to release public records to the plaintiffs for between 5 and 18 months after requests were made. The governor’s office argues on appeal that the case is moot because some of the requested records were released 18 days after the suit was filed. It also argues that the Open Records Act does not explicitly support a timeliness claim, and that interpreting Chapter 22 to permit a timeliness claim against the governor would violate separation of powers under the Iowa Constitution by reaching a nonjusticiable political question and infringing her executive privilege.

 

State v. Boone

Scheduled for oral argument Feb. 22, 9 a.m.

Question: Was the statute of limitations extended for a period when a criminal suspect was not “publicly resident” in the state?

Maurice Boone Jr. appeals his conviction by the Polk County District Court for willful injury causing serious bodily injury and intimidation with a dangerous weapon. Boone argues the statute of limitations expired in his case because more than three years elapsed between the time of the crime and his arrest in Nebraska. In denying Boone’s motion to dismiss, the District Court concluded Boone was not “publicly resident” in Iowa during periods when he was either out of state or hid his residence in Iowa from the public and thus the three-year statute of limitations was paused until he returned to the state. On appeal, Boone argues that, while he was occasionally outside the state, the State failed to prove the duration of his absence was enough to extend the statute of limitations.

 

Sutton v. Council Bluffs Water Works

Scheduled for oral argument Feb. 22, 9 a.m.

Question: Does Iowa’s Municipal Tort Claims Act bar recovery by a private property owner for damage to a home caused by a public water utility’s water main break?

The Council Bluffs Water Works appeals the Pottawattamie County District Court’s denial of its motion to dismiss Angela and Jim Sutton’s suit against the utility for strict liability and negligence for damage to the foundation of their home caused by water main leaks. The Water Works argues on appeal that private property owners may not recover damages from a municipal water utility on the basis of strict liability under the Iowa Municipal Tort Claims Act.

 

In the Matter of the Medical Assistance Pooled Special Needs Trust of Scott Hewitt

Scheduled for oral argument Feb. 22, 1:30 p.m.

Question: Does the trustee of a Medicaid recipient’s trust fund owe the Iowa Department of Human Services a more complete accounting of funds remaining in an Iowan’s account following his death?

The Iowa Department of Human Services (DHS) appeals a Jasper County District Court decision granting summary judgment to the nonprofit Center for Special Needs Trust Administration and denying the DHS’s cross-motion for summary judgment. Prior to his death in 2019, Medicaid recipient Scott Hewett transferred assets into a pooled trust created under federal law that is exempt for purposes of determining Medicaid eligibility. The District Court’s ruling allowed the Center for Special Needs Trust Administration as Trustee to retain any remaining funds in Hewitt’s subaccount by transferring the funds into a pooled master account for the benefit of other Medicaid recipients and concluded that no further accounting of the trust account was needed. DHS argues federal law provides that any funds remaining in Hewett’s account less certain expenses are to be returned to the State as reimbursement for its Medicaid assistance provided for Hewitt, and that the Trustee should be ordered to provide an accounting showing the funds have been used according to federal requirements.

 

Livingood, et al. v. City of Des Moines

Scheduled for oral argument Feb. 22, 1:30 p.m.

Question: Is it unconstitutional for a city to seize state income tax refunds to collect alleged debts for traffic fines under its automated traffic enforcement ordinance?

Francis Livingood, Christopher Maury, and Daniel Robbins appeal the Polk County District Court’s denial of their motion for summary judgment and grant of the defendant-appellee City of Des Moines’ motion for summary judgment. The District Court dismissed the plaintiffs’ claims that the City violated state law and the Constitution in its use of the Iowa Income Tax Offset Program to seize state income tax refunds to collect funds allegedly owed to the City for traffic fines levied under its automated traffic enforcement ordinance (ATE). The plaintiffs argue the City’s use of the Tax Offset Program is preempted by Iowa Code Chapter 354, which outlines powers and duties of cities; that the collection of ATE debts without obtaining a court judgment violates due process; and that the collection of ATE debts amounts to an unconstitutional taking.

 

Stogdill, et al. v. City of Windsor Heights and Municipal Collections of America

Scheduled for oral argument Feb. 22, 1:30 p.m.

Question: Is it unconstitutional for a city to seize state income tax refunds to collect alleged debts for traffic fines under its automated traffic enforcement ordinance?

James Stogdill, Matthew Johnson, and Alesha Smith appeal the Polk County District Court’s ruling granting summary judgment to the City of Windsor Heights and Municipal Collections of America, dismissing the plaintiff-appellants’ claims that the city and collections company illegally use the Iowa Income Tax Offset Program to seize income tax refund money held by the Iowa Department of Revenue allegedly owed to the City for traffic fines levied through its automated traffic enforcement  system (ATE).

 

In the Matter of the Medical Assistance Pooled Special Needs Trust of Steven Muller

Will be submitted to the Court Feb. 22 without oral argument.

Question: Does the trustee of a Medicaid trust fund owe the Iowa Department of Human Services a more complete accounting of funds remaining in an Iowa’s account following his death?

The Center for Special Needs Trust Administration appeals a Scott County District Court ruling denying its motion for summary judgment and granting the Iowa Department of Human Services’ (DHS) motion for summary judgment. The Center for Special Needs Trust Administration is the Trustee for a sub-account trust to which Medicaid recipient Steven Muller contributed assets prior to his death in 2020. Following Muller’s death, DHS sought to reclaim funds remaining in Muller’s account as reimbursement for its Medicaid assistance provided for Muller. The Center, as Trustee, argues the District Court erred in determining that retention by the Center was improper without a further accounting provided to DHS.

 

 

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