The Iowa Supreme Court ruled Friday that a Democratic appointee can seek damages for alleged political retaliation he suffered under former Republican Gov. Terry Branstad, a decision that will make it easier for state residents to sue government officials who violate their rights.
In a 4-3 decision, the court ruled that former Iowa Workers' Compensation Commissioner Chris Godfrey can bring claims alleging that his property and liberty interests were "violated by the partisan motivation" of Branstad, Gov. Kim Reynolds and their aides. The court said it wasn't taking a position on the merits of Godfrey's claims, which will head to trial along with his allegations that the defendants violated the Iowa Civil Rights Act by discriminating against him on the basis of sexual orientation. Godfrey is gay.
The ruling marks the first time the court has allowed citizens to file lawsuits seeking monetary damages against government officials for alleged violations of rights protected under the Iowa Constitution. The case had been closely watched by government agencies at all levels in Iowa that had urged the court not to open the door to such litigation.
The court's majority held that damage claims can be brought under the state constitution if state law doesn't otherwise provide an adequate remedy for the alleged violation.
Godfrey, now chief judge of the board that decides federal workers' compensation disputes in Washington, called the ruling a victory for individual rights.
"Whatever the impact on my case, this is a decision that is really going to help Iowans who are impacted by improper government actions going forward. That's a great thing," he said. "This decision says that if the government is acting against somebody, the courts will be there to protect people. And we can have a jury that's going to listen to the facts and decide."
Dissenting Justice Edward Mansfield said the ruling will have "far-reaching effects," potentially prompting scores of lawsuits from current and former inmates alleging they were wrongly incarcerated. But he said it may have little impact on Godfrey's case if Branstad, who is now the U.S. ambassador to China, can show that he and his staff had legal reasons for demanding Godfrey's resignation, cutting his pay and criticizing his performance.
It is the second Iowa Supreme Court ruling that has gone Godfrey's way since he filed the lawsuit 5 ½ years ago. In 2014, the court ruled that state officials can be ordered to personally pay damages if they break the law and were acting outside the scope of their employment. Taxpayers have spent roughly $1 million paying an outside law firm to defend the state in the case.
Godfrey was appointed by Democratic Gov. Chet Culver in 2009 and confirmed by the Iowa Senate to a six-year term as commissioner, a position that rules on appeals involving whether businesses and insurers must compensate injured workers. After Branstad's election as governor in 2010, he requested Godfrey's resignation so that he could appoint his own commissioner.
Godfrey declined to step down, arguing that the job was supposed to be insulated from politics and that his term didn't expire until 2015. Branstad responded by cutting Godfrey's pay from $112,000 to $73,000, the lowest allowed for the position. Branstad, Reynolds — then the lieutenant governor — and aides defended the actions by painting Godfrey as a poor commissioner who was hurting businesses. Godfrey says those statements were defamatory and alleges he was treated more harshly than other appointees because he's gay.
Godfrey's lawsuit contends that their actions were politically motivated and damaged his career and reputation, violating his individual property and liberty interests guaranteed by the Iowa Bill of Rights. Friday's ruling reinstates those claims, which had been dismissed by a judge on the basis that such lawsuits were not recognized in Iowa.
Branstad has said that he sought to oust Godfrey after hearing complaints about rulings from business leaders such as Beef Products Inc. founders Eldon and Regina Roth, top donors to his 2010 campaign. He has denied discriminating against Godfrey and noted he had the power to set his pay.
"We are pleased the Supreme Court left intact the defendants' affirmative defenses, which we believe will dispose of Mr. Godfrey's case," said Branstad's attorney, George LaMarca.
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