Nahas v. Polk Cnty.

Docket Number22-0239
Decision Date09 June 2023
PartiesJIM NAHAS, Appellee, v. POLK COUNTY, IOWA, TOM HOCKENSMITH, Individually and in His Official Capacity, ANGELA CONNOLLY, Individually and in Her Official Capacity, STEVE VAN OORT, Individually and in His Official Capacity, ROBERT BROWNELL, Individually and in His Official Capacity, and JOHN NORRIS, Individually and in His Official Capacity, Appellants.
CourtUnited States State Supreme Court of Iowa

Submitted December 15, 2022

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

County officials appeal a district court's order denying their motion to dismiss based on its conclusion that the qualified immunity provisions in the Iowa Municipal Tort Claims Act did not apply retrospectively. AFFIRMED IN PART, REVERSED IN PART, AND REMANDED.

Kimberly Graham, County Attorney, and Meghan L. Gavin (argued), Assistant County Attorney, for appellants.

Nicholas Mauro (argued) of Carney & Appleby Law Firm, Des Moines, and Michael Carroll of Coppola, McConville, Carroll, Hockenberg &Flynn, P.C., West Des Moines, for appellee.

Carlton G. Salmons of Macro & Kozlowski, LLP, West Des Moines, for amicus curiae Heartland Insurance Risk Pool.

The court, in which all participating justices joined. Mansfield, J., took no part in the consideration or decision of the case.


An aggrieved former Polk County employee brings an array of tort claims against the county and the Polk County Board of Supervisors (the Board) under Iowa Code chapter 670 (2021). Polk County and those employers sought to dismiss the claims, arguing they were insulated from liability under Iowa's recently enacted qualified immunity provision. They also argued the former employee did not satisfy Iowa Code section 670.4A's new pleading requirement for qualified immunity defenses. The district court rejected these arguments and denied the defendants' motion to dismiss. The defendants now appeal that ruling.

I. Background Facts and Proceedings.

On January 5, 2021, the Board fired Jim Nahas, the Polk County Human Resources Director, after he refused to resign. Nahas challenged his termination by filing a lawsuit against Polk County and four members of the Board, claiming libel per se, wrongful termination in violation of public policy, extortion, civil conspiracy, intentional infliction of emotional distress, and violations of Iowa Code chapters 21 and 22.

The defendants filed a motion to dismiss under Iowa Code section 670.4A, a new provision of the Iowa Municipal Tort Claims Act (IMTCA), and Iowa Rule of Civil Procedure 1.421. On January 26, 2022, the district court denied the motion to dismiss, concluding section 670.4A did not apply retrospectively. The court also concluded that Nahas's petition satisfied the notice pleading standards. The defendants filed a timely appeal, which we retained. See Iowa Code § 670.4A(4) ("Any decision by the district court denying qualified immunity shall be immediately appealable.").

Additional facts will be discussed as necessary.

II. Standard of Review.

"We review a district court's ruling on a motion to dismiss for the correction of errors at law." Benskin, Inc. v. W. Bank, 952 N.W.2d 292, 298 (Iowa 2020) (quoting Shumate v. Drake Univ., 846 N.W.2d 503, 507 (Iowa 2014)). In our review, "we accept as true the petition's well-pleaded factual allegations, but not its legal conclusions." Id. (quoting Shumate, 846 N.W.2d at 507).

III. Analysis.
A. Iowa Municipal Tort Claims Act.

At common law in Iowa, governmental subdivisions (e.g., cities and counties) enjoyed some measure of immunity from a lawsuit. See Jahnke v. Incorporated City of Des Moines, 191 N.W.2d 780, 782 (Iowa 1971) (explaining that the Iowa legislature eliminated common law tort immunity when it enacted the IMTCA, which was formerly codified at Iowa Code § 613A (1967)); see also City of West Branch v. Miller, 546 N.W.2d 598, 603 (Iowa 1996) (giving examples of the limits of governmental immunity at common law). Although the legislature has since broadly waived governmental immunity for tort cases through the IMTCA, it recently amended the IMTCA to narrow the scope of municipal liability. In 2021, the legislature codified qualified immunity in the IMTCA for the first time. 2021 Iowa Acts ch. 183, § 14 (codified at Iowa Code § 670.4A (2022)). Specifically, the legislature codified a substantive qualified immunity protection and introduced a heightened pleading requirement for plaintiffs bringing IMTCA claims. Id. § 14(1), (3) (codified at Iowa Code § 670.4A(1), (3) (2022)).

1. Section 670.4A(1)'s new qualified immunity protection. Iowa Code section 670.4A(1) provides:

1. Notwithstanding any other provision of law, an employee or officer subject to a claim brought under this chapter shall not be liable for monetary damages if any of the following apply:
a. The right, privilege, or immunity secured by law was not clearly established at the time of the alleged deprivation, or at the time of the alleged deprivation the state of the law was not sufficiently clear that every reasonable employee would have understood that the conduct alleged constituted a violation of law.
b. A court of competent jurisdiction has issued a final decision on the merits holding, without reversal, vacatur, or preemption, that the specific conduct alleged to be unlawful was consistent with the law.

Section 670.4A(1) establishes that qualified immunity protects employees or officers so they are not "liable for monetary damages" under the IMTCA if one of three conditions applies. Id. The first condition is that a legal right, privilege, or immunity that the plaintiff claims was violated was not clearly established at the time of the alleged violation. Id. § 670.4A(1)(a). The second condition is that the law was not so clear that reasonable employees would have known the conduct the plaintiff alleges violated the law. Id. The third condition is not at issue in this case. See id. § 670.4A(1)(b).

2. Section 670.4A(3)'s new procedural requirements.

Historically, Iowa is a notice pleading state. See Young v. HealthPort Techs., Inc., 877 N.W.2d 124, 127 (Iowa 2016) ("Under our notice-pleading standards, nearly every case will survive a motion to dismiss for failure to state a claim upon which any relief may be granted." (citing Smith v. Smith, 513 N.W.2d 728, 730 (Iowa 1994))). As such, a

petition need not allege ultimate facts that support each element of the cause of action. The petition, however, must contain factual allegations that give the defendant "fair notice" of the claim asserted so the defendant can adequately respond to the petition. A petition complies with the "fair notice" requirement if it informs the defendant of the incident giving rise to the claim and of the claim's general nature.

Rees v. City of Shenandoah, 682 N.W.2d 77, 79 (Iowa 2004) (citations omitted) (quoting Schmidt v. Wilkinson, 340 N.W.2d 282, 283 (Iowa 1983)).

Defendants may file preanswer motions to dismiss for plaintiffs' "[f]ailure to state a claim upon which any relief may be granted." Iowa R. Civ. P. 1.421(1)(f). "A court should grant a motion to dismiss 'only if the petition on its face shows no right of recovery under any state of facts.'" Young, 877 N.W.2d at 127 (quoting Tate v. Derifield, 510 N.W.2d 885, 887 (Iowa 1994)). In the past, we have explicitly declined to replace our notice pleading system with the heightened pleading standards that federal courts use. Hawkeye Foodservice Distrib., Inc. v. Iowa Educators Corp., 812 N.W.2d 600, 607 (Iowa 2012). But the legislature may impose heightened pleading requirements for specific types of claims. See, e.g., Meade v. Christie, 974 N.W.2d 770, 779 (Iowa 2022) (recognizing heightened pleading requirements imposed under director shield statute for claims against corporate directors).

The IMTCA now places a heightened pleading requirement on plaintiffs who bring claims against municipal corporations or those corporations' employees or officers. Iowa Code § 670.4A(3). This heightened pleading requirement has three features. First, plaintiffs "must state with particularity the circumstances constituting the violation." Id. Second, plaintiffs must plead "a plausible violation" of the law. Id. Third, they also "must state . . . that the law was clearly established at the time of the alleged violation." Id. Ultimately, section 670.4A provides that the failure to plead a plausible violation or that the law was clearly established will "result in dismissal with prejudice." Id.

B. Retrospective Application of Section 670.4A.

The parties contest whether and to what extent the qualified immunity provisions and heightened pleading requirement are applicable in this case. Nahas contends that applying the qualified immunity provisions and heightened pleading requirement would be an impermissible retrospective application of new law. The defendants disagree. We begin our analysis of the dispute with an overview of the relevant law. We then analyze the qualified immunity provisions and heightened pleading requirement separately.

1. Retrospective application of statutes generally.

"Whether a statute applies retrospectively, prospectively, or both is simply a question regarding the correct temporal application of a statute." Hrbek v. State, 958 N.W.2d 779, 782 (Iowa 2021) (citing Landgraf v. USI Film Prods., 114 S.Ct. 1522, 1524 (1994) (Scalia, J., concurring in the judgments)). In determining the correct temporal application of a statute, we generally apply a "three-part inquiry." Id.

"First [we] must determine whether application of a statute is in fact retrospective." Id. "With respect to the first part of the inquiry, application of a statute is in fact retrospective when a statute applies a new rule,...

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