Iowa Supreme Court: Tort Claims Act governs excessive-force claims under the state Constitution

by Rox Laird | January 6, 2021

A plaintiff with a claim under the Iowa Constitution for damages against the State or its employee must follow the procedures prescribed by the Iowa Tort Claims Act, including the Act’s exclusion of punitive damages, the Iowa Supreme Court said in a ruling handed down Dec. 31.

The decision in Wagner v. State of Iowa and Spece comes in response to four certified questions on state law submitted to the Iowa Supreme Court by the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Iowa.

Krystal Wagner sued the State and Iowa Department of Natural Resources Officer William Spece for excessive force in federal court following the death of her son, Shane Jensen. Jensen was holding a handgun in the presence of several law enforcement officers, including Spece, who fired his rifle and killed Jensen.

Wagner claimed violations of the federal and state constitutions and state law. The federal court dismissed the claims against the State, and against Spece in his official capacity. Before addressing the remaining question of Spece’s liability while acting in his individual capacity, the federal court submitted four unresolved questions of Iowa law to the Iowa Supreme Court.

  1. Does the Iowa Tort Claims Act, Iowa Code Chapter 669, apply to plaintiffs’ [state] constitutional tort causes of action?

The Supreme Court’s answer: “Yes, as to the procedural requirements of that Act.”

  1. Is the available remedy under the Iowa Tort Claims Act for excessive force by a law enforcement officer inadequate based on the unavailability of punitive damages? And if not, what considerations should courts address in determining whether legislative remedies for excessive force are adequate?

The Supreme Court’s answer: “No”

  1. Are plaintiffs’ claims under the Iowa Constitution subject to the administrative exhaustion requirement in Iowa Code section 669.5(1)?

The Supreme Court’s answer: “Yes.”

  1. Are plaintiffs required to bring their Iowa constitutional claims in the appropriate Iowa district court under Iowa Code section 669.4?

The Supreme Court’s answer: “Yes.”

“The [Iowa Tort Claims Act] allowed the State to be sued in tort for the first time and imposed a set of procedures for doing so,” Justice Edward Mansfield said in the opinion for the Court joined by Chief Justice Susan Christensen and Justices Thomas Waterman, Christopher McDonald, Dana Oxley, and Matthew McDermott. “We should not disregard those legislatively prescribed procedures.”

Justice Brent Appel filed a dissenting opinion arguing that the Tort Claims Act contains an exception that would allow an excessive-force claim to be brought under the Iowa Constitution outside of the parameters of the Act, which would allow for punitive damages.

“In my view,” Appel wrote, “in a case involving excessive force by government authorities alleging intentional misconduct or reckless disregard of the rights or safety of another, a punitive damages remedy must be part of the remedial portfolio.”

The Court’s answers to the submitted questions mean that Wagner’s claims under the U.S Constitution may go forward in federal court, but her state claims can only be pursued in state court.

Iowa’s Tort Claims Act — Iowa Code Chapter 669, enacted in 1965 — for the first time allowed suits to be brought against the State and state employees acting within the scope of their employment. Prior to passage of the Act, claims against the state of Iowa were barred under the common-law doctrine of sovereign immunity—described by the Court as the historic principle that “the King can do no wrong.”

“By enacting the ITCA, the State waived this immunity and opened itself to suit, but it did so strictly on its terms,” the Supreme Court said in a 2017 decision. And, in a 1989 ruling, it said: “Simply stated, the [ITCA] sets the metes and bounds of the State’s liability in tort.”

That changed with the Court’s 2017 decision in Godfrey v. State. [Read On Brief’s report on the 2017 Godfrey decision.] In that decision (referred to as Godfrey II), the Court held that under certain circumstances a claim could be brought against the State for a constitutional violation, even though the Iowa Legislature had not enacted a specific damages remedy.

“In Godfrey II, we concluded, at least implicitly, that the ITCA did not foreclose a direct constitutional damages claim against the State and state employees acting in their official capacity,” Mansfield wrote. “The issue before us now is whether the procedural limits of the ITCA should nonetheless apply to such a claim.”

The answer, the Court concluded, is that the Tort Claims Act’s procedural rules should also apply to constitutional claims. “It is logical to hold that constitutional torts, like other torts, are subject to the procedures set forth in the ITCA,” Mansfield wrote. “Just because the substantive barriers to liability in the ITCA do not apply, that does not mean we should dispense with the entire ITCA.”

The majority responded directly to Justice Appel’s argument in his dissent that the exception in the Tort Claims Act for excessive-force claims is, in effect, an “exit ramp” that allows a plaintiff to bring a free-standing constitutional claim outside of the Tort Claims Act. The majority disagreed, saying the Legislature would not have allowed plaintiffs to take an alternative route to the courthouse that did not exist at the time.

Prior to Godfrey II, there was no Iowa precedent for a direct constitutional claim for damages against the State or State officials, Mansfield wrote.

“So it is fair to say that when the ITCA was adopted in 1965, or even when it was subsequently amended, the Legislature would not have considered it necessary to mention constitutional torts in the ITCA, because there was no Iowa precedent allowing the State or its officials acting within the scope of their employment to be sued in damages for a constitutional tort,” he wrote. “By not mentioning such suits expressly in the ITCA, the Legislature did not open the door for them to be brought in some other fashion.”

The Court’s conclusion that constitutional claims against the State must use the existing framework of the Tort Claims Act raises the question of whether the Act’s prohibition of punitive damages against the State should apply to constitutional claims. The Court answered that question in the affirmative.

Whereas actual damages compensate plaintiffs for wrongful acts, punitive damages are designed to act as a deterrent. “Almost by definition, punitive damages are not remedial,” Mansfield wrote.

“It is difficult to see, therefore, that the unavailability of punitive damages would render a remedy inadequate in most cases,” he wrote. “At least in an excessive force case without other unconstitutional conduct where any actual damages will likely be significant, we are not persuaded to overturn the bar on punitive damages imposed by the Legislature.”

The Court noted that exceptions may be made for cases that differ from the one addressed in this appeal.

“With other kinds of unconstitutional conduct, such as invidious discrimination or suppression of free speech, a traditional award of actual damages may not correspond with the harm actually caused,” the Court said. “For example, if the unconstitutional conduct involved not merely excessive force but also a discriminatory use of force in violation of Article I, Section 6 [of the Iowa Constitution], a broader remedy might be appropriate.”


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