Godfrey v. State, No. 19-1954

CourtUnited States State Supreme Court of Iowa
Writing for the CourtMcDONALD, Justice.
PartiesCHRISTOPHER J. GODFREY, Appellee, v. STATE OF IOWA, TERRY BRANSTAD, Governor of the State of Iowa, in His Official Capacity, BRENNA FINDLEY, Legal Counsel to the Governor of the State of Iowa, in Her Official Capacity, Appellants.
Docket NumberNo. 19-1954
Decision Date30 June 2021

CHRISTOPHER J. GODFREY, Appellee,
v.
STATE OF IOWA, TERRY BRANSTAD, Governor of the State of Iowa,
in His Official Capacity, BRENNA FINDLEY,
Legal Counsel to the Governor of the State of Iowa,
in Her Official Capacity, Appellants.

No. 19-1954

SUPREME COURT OF IOWA

Submitted March 24, 2021
June 30, 2021


Appeal from the Iowa District Court for Jasper County, Brad McCall, Judge.

Defendants appeal from judgment in favor of plaintiff on his claims for sexual-orientation discrimination and retaliation arising under the Iowa Civil Rights Act and violations of his due process rights under the Iowa Constitution. REVERSED AND REMANDED.

McDonald, J., delivered the opinion of the court, in which Waterman, Mansfield, and Oxley, JJ., joined. Appel, J., filed an opinion concurring in part and dissenting in part. McDermott, J., filed an opinion concurring in part and dissenting in part, in which Christensen, C.J., joined.

Debra Hulett (argued), Frank Harty, Katie Graham, and David Bower of Nyemaster Goode, P.C., Des Moines, for appellants.

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Roxanne Conlin (argued), Devin Kelly, and Jean Mauss of Roxanne Conlin & Associates, P.C., Des Moines, for appellee.

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McDONALD, Justice.

In November 2010, Republican Terry Branstad defeated incumbent Democratic Governor Chet Culver. While transitioning into office, Governor-elect Branstad sent a form letter to thirty executive branch officers appointed by prior Democratic administrations and requested each submit a letter of resignation. Iowa Workers' Compensation Commissioner Christopher Godfrey received the form letter and refused to resign. After Godfrey refused to resign, the Governor reduced Godfrey's compensation within a range fixed by statute.

Godfrey, who is gay, sued the State, the Governor, the Lieutenant Governor, members of the Governor's staff, and other state employees for, among other things, sexual-orientation discrimination and retaliation under the Iowa Civil Rights Act (ICRA), Iowa Code §§ 216.1-.21 (2011), and violations of Godfrey's constitutional right to be paid a particular salary. A jury found in favor of Godfrey. On appeal, the defendants claim they are entitled to judgment as a matter of law. In the alternative, the defendants contend they are entitled to a new trial because the district court committed numerous procedural, evidentiary, and instructional errors. We need not address the procedural, evidentiary, and instructional errors because we conclude the defendants were entitled to judgment as a matter of law with respect to all claims notwithstanding any errors.

I.

Terry Branstad was first elected Governor of Iowa in 1982. The citizens of Iowa reelected him in 1986, 1990, and 1994. Governor Branstad did not seek reelection in 1998 and decided to retire from public life. He obtained a position in the private sector as President of Des Moines University, an osteopathic school of medicine. At the time he was hired,

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Branstad committed to the trustees of the university that he would stay out of and away from politics while serving in the position.

In January 1999, Governor Branstad was succeeded in office by Democratic Governor Thomas Vilsack. In 2005, Governor Vilsack's chief of staff communicated with relevant stakeholders to find candidates for the position of workers' compensation commissioner. The chief of staff forwarded three names to Governor Vilsack, including Godfrey, who was advanced and promoted by the Iowa Trial Lawyers Association, an association of lawyers who primarily represent plaintiffs or claimants. In forwarding Godfrey's name to the Governor, the chief of staff noted "the current commissioner is concerned about [Godfrey's] ability to be confirmed." Despite the reservations, Governor Vilsack nominated Godfrey to serve as the workers' compensation commissioner. Governor Vilsack knew Godfrey was gay and thought the nomination was important to reflect the diversity in the state.

Governor Vilsack testified the Iowa Association of Business and Industry (ABI) was opposed to Godfrey's appointment because of Godfrey's lack of administrative experience within the agency and because of its concern that Godfrey lacked an employer's perspective. ABI has more than 1000 business members and advocates for positions it believes will improve the business climate in Iowa and encourage employers to expand in or move to Iowa. ABI is a "very powerful organization" and regularly communicates its position on individuals and policies to elected officials. Governor Vilsack testified he listened to "groups like ABI and consider[ed] their concerns." After the administration provided more information to ABI regarding Godfrey's experience, ABI moved from opposed to neutral with respect to Godfrey's nomination.

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In April 2006, Governor Vilsack withdrew Godfrey's nomination when it became apparent Godfrey would not obtain the necessary number of votes in the Iowa Senate needed for confirmation. Governor Vilsack then appointed Godfrey to serve as interim commissioner for the remainder of Godfrey's predecessor's term.

After being reelected once, Governor Vilsack decided not to run for reelection. His second term expired in January 2007, and he was succeeded in office by Governor Culver. As Governor Vilsack's second term was winding down, he asked all executive branch officers he appointed, including those appointed to a term of years, to submit letters of resignation so Governor Culver could make his own choices. Governor Vilsack thought "the new governor could decide for himself who should be [w]orkers' [c]ompensation commissioner." Governor Vilsack sent a letter to Godfrey requesting Godfrey submit a letter of resignation to the incoming administration for the purpose of "facilitating a smooth transition to a new administration." The chair of Governor-elect Culver's transition team sent a similar letter to Godfrey. Godfrey complied with Governor Vilsack's and Governor-elect Culver's requests and submitted his letter of resignation.

In January 2007, Governor Culver nominated Godfrey for the position of workers' compensation commissioner. In April, the senate confirmed the appointment for the remainder of the prior commissioner's term. In February 2009, Governor Culver nominated Godfrey for a new term as workers' compensation commissioner. The Iowa Senate unanimously confirmed the appointment. During the confirmation process in 2009, Democratic Senator Tom Courtney ran into newly elected Senator (now Governor) Kim Reynolds in the capitol lobby lounge and introduced Godfrey and his partner to Reynolds. Pursuant to statute,

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Godfrey's term was six years, commencing May 1, 2009, and ending April 30, 2015. See Iowa Code § 69.19 (2009); id. § 86.1.

At trial, many witnesses testified that Godfrey was openly gay and that it was common knowledge Godfrey was openly gay. Governor Vilsack, Democratic Senator Mike Gronstal, Democratic Senator Courtney, and Democratic Senator Matt McCoy, among others, testified Godfrey's sexual orientation was common knowledge among legislators. Many of the deputy workers' compensation commissioners and commission staff testified it was common knowledge within the workers' compensation commission that Godfrey was gay.

Starting in the fall of 2009, a number of people approached Branstad and asked him to run for governor again. Branstad decided he would again seek the governorship. He hired Jeff Boeyink to serve as his campaign manager. During the campaign, Branstad met with thousands of business owners across the state and a "couple of themes emerged." First, was the need for property tax relief. Second, Branstad heard repeated complaints regarding workers' compensation and the workers' compensation commissioner. Branstad heard the commissioner, "in the way he conducted his office, was anti-employer, was biased against employers, and that was hurting the ability of some of these businesses to compete." Branstad heard similar complaints from ABI, the Iowa Motor Truck Association, self-insured companies, lawyers representing self-insured companies, BPI (a large meat processor), and other businesses.

Another issue that arose during the campaign was same-sex marriage. In 1998, the legislature passed the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA). The act provided that "[o]nly a marriage between a male and a female is valid." 1998 Iowa Acts ch. 1099, § 1 (codified at Iowa Code § 595.2 (1999)). The bill was passed by the Iowa Senate by a vote of 40-9.

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Democratic Minority Leader Gronstal and then-Senator Vilsack voted in favor of DOMA. In April 2009, in the case of Varnum v. Brien, this court held that "the language in Iowa Code section 595.2 limiting civil marriage to a man and a woman [is unconstitutional and] must be stricken from the statute." 763 N.W.2d 862, 907 (Iowa 2009). At the time of the Varnum decision, Governor Culver issued a press release stating he "personally believe[d] that marriage is between a man and a woman." However, he was "reluctant" to support an amendment to the Iowa Constitution that would define marriage as between one man and one woman and effectively overrule Varnum. Branstad and Republican Brenna Findley n/k/a Bird, who was running for the office of attorney general, were, at that time, in favor of overturning Varnum with a constitutional amendment or at least in favor of allowing Iowans the opportunity to vote on a proposed amendment.

Branstad defeated Governor Culver in the 2010 election. In the days following the election, Governor-elect Branstad announced Boeyink would serve as his chief of staff and Bird would serve as his legal counsel. Like Governors Vilsack and Culver, Governor-elect Branstad sought the resignation of appointed executive branch officers. Boeyink and the transition team created a list of these officers, including those who served at the pleasure of the governor and those appointed for fixed terms. On December 3, 2010, Boeyink sent form letters under the Governor-elect's signature...

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