DES MOINES — Defamation claims against Gov. Terry Branstad and top administration officials should be litigated, a divided Iowa Supreme Court ruled Friday.
Christopher Godfrey, the state’s worker’s compensation commissioner who was appointed to a six-year-term by former Gov. Chet Culver, a Democrat, has been at odds with Branstad ever since he refused Branstad’s request to step down from his post. Branstad is a Republican.
Godfrey sued Branstad and members of his administration in 2012 after the governor slashed his salary by $36,000 in 2011. Godfrey — who is gay — is seeking $1 million in compensation, claiming defamation, harassment, sexual discrimination and extortion.
But the case in front of the court was not 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 who Godfrey named as defendants in his lawsuit are immune to the litigation.
State law gives protection from lawsuits to employees acting in their official capacity and within the scope of their employment. The Iowa Attorney General certified that the defendants were acting in their official capacity. That ruling led a district court to rule that Godfrey could not sue Branstad and the others individually.
In an 18-page ruling, a majority of the judges on the Supreme Court ruled otherwise, saying the attorney general’s ruling could not be the final say on the claims made by Godfrey and sending the case back to a lower court to “allow the fact finder to decide whether the individual defendants’ actions were within the scope of their employment for these counts.”
Judge David Wiggins, writing for the majority, said the ruling “does not change the way the State has administered claims against state employees or open the floodgates for state employees to be sued individually and to pay the defense costs out of their own pockets when they commit a tort in the scope of their employment.” Instead, he wrote, it exists to ensure due process when there is a factual dispute over actions conducted in official and unofficial capacities.
Judges Edward Mansfield and Thomas Waterman dissented.
Waterman joined a 18-page dissent by Mansfield and authored his own six-page dissent.
“I predict the consequences of today’s decision will be to hamper job performance by state officials and to deter good people from public service,” Waterman wrote. “This will create a strong incentive for public officials to clam up and not participate in press conferences or allow media interviews. Is this what we want? Is it what the Legislature intended?”
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