Iowa Supreme Court to decide if governor, other leaders immune to lawsuit

Branstad wants Workers Compensation commissioner removed from his post

Mike Wiser
Published: March 5 2014 | 8:04 am - Updated: 1 April 2014 | 9:10 am in

The Iowa Supreme Court held a special evening session Tuesday to hear arguments over who has the final say when a state employee is working in his or her official capacity and, thus, immune to certain litigation.

The hearing is part of a larger dispute between Gov. Terry Branstad, who wants Christopher Godfrey out of his job, and Godfrey, who wants to keep it.

Godfrey is the Workers’ Compensation commissioner for the state. Former Gov. Tom Vilsack appointed Godfrey to the post in 2006 to finish the term of Mike Trier. Former Gov. Chet Culver appointed Godfrey to a full six-year term in 2009. He was unanimously confirmed by the Iowa Senate.

Godfrey sued Branstad and members of his administration in 2012 after the governor’s office pushed him to resign and the governor slashed his salary by $36,000 in 2011. Godfrey — who is gay — seeks $1 million in compensation, claiming defamation, harassment, sexual discrimination and extortion.

But Tuesday’s hearing wasn’t about the harassment and discrimination claims. It focused on whether Branstad, Lt. Gov. Kim Reynolds, the governor’s former Chief of Staff Jeff Boeynik and others Godfrey named in his lawsuit are immune to the litigation.

State law gives employees acting in their official capacity and within the scope of their employment protection from lawsuits. The Iowa Attorney General certified the defendants were acting in their official capacity. That ruling led a district court to rule Godfrey couldn’t sue Branstad and the others individually.

Tuesday night’s hearing was billed as a “special evening session” of the court, which usually hears cases during daylight hours. Court employees distributed programs for the hearing, which included an explanation of the case as well as short bios of the judges. Iowa State Bar Association president Guy Cook outlined the case to a full courtroom before the seven judges took their seats.

“You’re suggesting if an employee, any employee, is sued and the AG certifies, your position is a court can review that certification, correct?” Judge Brent Appel asked.

“Absolutely,” said Roxanne Conlin, Godfrey’s attorney. “Otherwise this court would be reduced to petty functionaries of a self-interested executive.”

George LaMarca, attorney for the Branstad administration, argued the immunity clause was put in place to protect government from unjustly sued every time there is a dispute over government functions.

“The whole reason for the law was to protect the state,” he said. He said no one was stopping Godfrey from suing; the question is whether he can make a claim the way he wants to.

“They want to rewrite the act to suit their purposes,” he said.

No matter what the court decides, the lawsuit has inspired at least one related piece of legislation.

Sen. Rob Hogg, D-Cedar Rapids, introduced legislation this year that would have required outside attorneys to provide a cost estimate of representation to the state before they were hired and, additionally, justify billing that exceeds the estimate. LaMarca charges $325 an hour for representation. Hogg said although the bill died this year, he plans to bring it back again.

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