Doland v. Boone County, 84-785

CourtUnited States State Supreme Court of Iowa
Citation376 N.W.2d 870
Docket NumberNo. 84-785,84-785
PartiesK. Bruce DOLAND and Cynda K. Doland, Appellants, v. BOONE COUNTY, Iowa, Appellee.
Decision Date13 November 1985

Bruce J. Nuzum of Matthias, Tyler & Nuzum, Newton, for appellants.

Carlton G. Salmons of Austin & Gaudineer, Des Moines, for appellee.

Considered en banc.

McGIVERIN, Justice.

This appeal raises procedural issues involving the proper interpretation of portions of Iowa Rule of Civil Procedure 215.1 which provides for dismissal of cases for want of prosecution and reinstatement of such cases. The determinative issue, however, involves timeliness of this appeal.

Plaintiffs' case was dismissed pursuant to rule 215.1 for want of prosecution. After the district court refused to reinstate the case, plaintiffs appealed and we transferred the case to the court of appeals. That court reversed the district court ruling and ordered the case reinstated. We granted defendant's application for further review. We now vacate the court of appeals decision and dismiss the appeal.

On June 10, 1981, plaintiff K. Bruce Doland was injured in a motorcycle accident. In a petition filed November 20 in district court, plaintiffs alleged that defendant Boone County was responsible for defects in the road on which Doland was riding, and that this negligence caused his motorcycle accident and injuries. His wife, Cynda K. Doland, joined in the action seeking damages for loss of consortium.

Answer was filed and discovery began.

On August 8, 1983, the clerk of the district court gave both parties a written rule 215.1 notice which notified them that the case had to be tried prior to January 1, 1984, or an order continuing the case entered as provided in the rule, or else the case would be subject to dismissal pursuant to the rule. Plaintiffs filed an application for continuance under rule 215.1 on December 27, 1983, and the court set a hearing on the matter for January 16, 1984. Defendant filed a resistance to the application. At the court-reported hearing held on January 16 before the court, both parties were present and argued the motion.

Plaintiffs' attorney contended that the delay in bringing the matter to trial was because the injuries of his client, K. Bruce Doland, had been slow in healing for various reasons, including a subsequent injury in a motorcycle accident during the time this action against defendant Boone county was pending. Plaintiffs' attorney told the court that he believed the case was dismissed by operation of law on January 1 therefore, he requested the court also to consider his oral application to reinstate the case which was made on the court-reported record in the presence of opposing counsel.

Defendant resisted the motion for continuance on the ground that the case was automatically dismissed on December 31. It also resisted plaintiffs' oral application to reinstate. The matter was argued and submitted to the court for ruling.

On January 18, 1984, the court ruled that the case was dismissed by operation of law under rule 215.1 as of January 1. The court then considered the oral application for reinstatement and ruled that there were inadequate grounds shown for reinstatement of the action under rule 215.1.

On February 2, plaintiffs filed a motion for reconsideration of the January 18 ruling. On the same date they filed a written application for reinstatement, then contending that the oral application was invalid.

Both of those motions were heard on March 12. On March 19, the court denied the motion for reconsideration and plaintiffs' written application for reinstatement.

Plaintiffs appealed on April 17 from all rulings of the court and we transferred the case to the court of appeals. That court reversed the district court's ruling and held that plaintiffs' application to reinstate should have been granted because there was reasonable cause for delay in prosecution of the case.

We granted defendant's application for further review. Iowa R.App.P. 402.

Defendant has assigned numerous errors. However, the controlling issues raised by defendant which we address are: 1) whether the district court had jurisdiction to consider the motion for continuance or whether the case was automatically dismissed as of January 1, 1984; 2) whether plaintiffs' oral application made on the court-reported record for reinstatement of the case and ruling thereon were valid; and 3) whether this appeal was timely filed.

I. Dismissal of the case under Iowa Rule of Civil Procedure 215.1. The district court ruled that plaintiffs' case was dismissed by operation of law for want of prosecution under rule 215.1 as of January 1, 1984, and that the court was thereafter without authority to grant a motion for continuance. We agree.

The purpose of rule 215.1 is to "assure the timely and diligent prosecution of cases on the docket." Miller v. Bonar, 337 N.W.2d 523, 526 (Iowa 1983). The rule applies to all cases in which a petition has been on file for more than one year prior to any July 15. 1 The clerk of the district court must give notice to all counsel of record in those cases prior to August 15, informing them that the case must be tried by the next January 1 or it will be subject to dismissal. Rule 215.1 further provides in pertinent part:

All such cases shall be assigned and tried or dismissed without prejudice at plaintiff's costs unless satisfactory reasons for want of prosecution or grounds for continuance be shown by application and ruling thereon after notice and not ex parte.

(Emphasis added.)

Our cases have interpreted this portion of rule 215.1 to mean that a filed application for continuance alone is insufficient to avoid dismissal unless it is accompanied by an order continuing the case prior to the mandatory dismissal date. Koss v. City of Cedar Rapids, 300 N.W.2d 153, 157 (Iowa 1981); Brown v. Iowa District Court, 272 N.W.2d 457, 458 (Iowa 1978); Fankell v. Schober, 350 N.W.2d 219, 223 (Iowa Ct.App.1984).

An exception to this general rule regarding continuance of a case subject to dismissal under rule 215.1 exists. In Schimerowski v. Iowa Beef Packers, Inc., 196 N.W.2d 551, 554 (Iowa 1972), we held "where a motion for continuance is filed and submitted on notice before the rule 215.1 deadline for trial, continuance or dismissal, jurisdiction is retained by the trial court while it has such motion under advisement." We did not sanction the mere filing of a motion for continuance to stay dismissal of a case under rule 215.1, rather we permitted a case, where a motion for continuance had been submitted to the court for ruling and was under advisement, to stand and not be subject to automatic dismissal.

Plaintiffs cite Anderson v. National By-Products, Inc., 257 Iowa 921, 135 N.W.2d 602 (1965), to support the proposition that their motion for continuance on file prevented the case from automatically being dismissed under rule 215.1. In Anderson, we held that once a motion to continue was on file at one term of court, the case would not be automatically dismissed and the motion could be considered at the next term of court. Id. at 923, 135 N.W.2d at 603. However, the holding in Anderson is inapposite here because following that decision a 1965 amendment to the rule became effective.

Originally, rule 215.1 provided only for means to avoid dismissal under the rule and did not provide for any measures of relief subsequent to dismissal for want of prosecution. Dismissal under rule 215.1 became a final judgment and the trial court had no further authority to vacate or modify the judgment under the rule. Windus v. Great Plains Gas, 254 Iowa 114, 124, 116 N.W.2d 410, 415 (1962); see Iowa R.Civ.P. 219. Under the amended rule as now in effect, however, a case which has been dismissed for want of prosecution can be reinstated by means of the procedure prescribed by the rule itself. Therefore, as has been pointed out "[s]ince the amendment allowing reinstatement has eased the plight of the displaced plaintiff under Rule 215.1, there should be less incentive for the trial court to avoid mandatory dismissal, but to hold the delinquent plaintiff to a showing of good cause on reinstatement." Note, Iowa Rule 215.1--Mandatory Dismissal for Want of Prosecution--The Flexible Trap, 23 Drake L.Rev. 158, 168 n. 98 (1973).

Therefore, we follow the result reached in those cases interpreting amended rule 215.1 and hold an application for continuance must be filed along with an order granting the motion, or else the application must have been taken under advisement for ruling by the court, prior to the mandatory dismissal date to avoid dismissal under rule 215.1. Motions for continuance under rule 215.1 should not be set by the court or court administrator for a hearing date which is after the mandatory dismissal date.

We do not believe the result we reach is unduly harsh. 2 As we stated in Greene v. Tri-County Community School District, 315 N.W.2d 779, 781 (Iowa 1982):

It is in the public interest that cases not tried or settled within a reasonable time should be dismissed. Whatever hardship might be suffered by an occasional litigant whose suit is thus lost is more than compensated by the general good that results from the impetus provided by the rule.

Further, the burden of seeking a continuance is on the applicant because he or she is the one to whom it must have been apparent in advance that the case could not be ready for trial. Requiring an applicant to prepare a motion for continuance and either obtain a ruling on it or to have it taken under advisement by the court between the time of notification by the clerk of court, no later than August 15, and dismissal as of January 1 is not overly burdensome.

We conclude that plaintiffs' case was dismissed as of January 1, 1984, because it was not tried nor was an order granting a continuance obtained before that time. Therefore, the court correctly concluded it was without jurisdiction as of January 1, 1984, to entertain...

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