Ronnfeldt v. Shelby Cnty. Chris A. Myrtue Mem'l Hosp., 22-0365

CourtUnited States State Supreme Court of Iowa
Writing for the CourtOXLEY, JUSTICE.
Docket Number22-0365
Decision Date06 January 2023



No. 22-0365

Supreme Court of Iowa

January 6, 2023

Submitted November 16, 2022

Appeal from the Iowa District Court for Shelby County, Richard H. Davidson, Judge.

The plaintiff appeals from the district court's order vacating the plaintiff's prior voluntary dismissal of her medical malpractice action without prejudice and dismissing the plaintiff's case with prejudice.

David J. Cripe of Hauptman O'Brien Wolf &Lathrop, Omaha, Nebraska, for appellant.

Frederick T. Harris, Bryony J. Whitaker, Theodore T. Appel, and Agnieszka Gaertner (until withdrawal) of Lamson Dugan &Murray, West Des Moines, for appellees.

Oxley, J., delivered the opinion of the court, in which all participating justices joined. Christensen, C.J., took no part in the consideration or decision of the case.



In 2017, the Iowa General Assembly enacted Iowa Code section 147.140, tightening the expert witness requirements for plaintiffs in medical malpractice actions. Section 147.140 requires the plaintiff to file a certificate of merit affidavit within sixty days of the defendant's answer; failure to do so "shall result . . . in dismissal with prejudice." Iowa Code § 147.140(6) (2021). The fighting issue in this case is whether that statute's dismissal requirement trumps a plaintiff's right under Iowa Rule of Civil Procedure 1.943 to voluntarily dismiss her case, once, without prejudice. The defendants contend that it does since their section 147.140 motion to dismiss was filed before the plaintiff's rule 1.943 dismissal. They also argue that the statute and rule are irreconcilable, meaning section 147.140 should control. For the reasons that follow, we conclude the two can be harmonized and the plaintiff's voluntary dismissal of her case was without prejudice.

I. Factual and Procedural History.

In May 2016, Ronnfeldt underwent a hernia repair surgery at Myrtue Medical Center in Shelby County. A CT scan revealed a "significant enlargement of [her] uterus" which, according to the notes in the medical records, warranted follow-up discussions and investigation. But Ronnfeldt was never informed of the results of the scan or referred for further treatment. Four years later, Ronnfeldt returned to Myrtue Medical Center complaining of abdominal pain. Another CT scan revealed the mass had "significantly increased in size" and was


now a tumor. After surgery to remove the tumor, Ronnfeldt was diagnosed with stage IV uterine cancer.

Ronnfeldt sued Myrtue Medical Center alleging medical negligence; she added Shelby County Medical Corporation as a defendant in her amended petition (both will be collectively referred to as "Myrtue" in this opinion). Myrtue filed its answer on July 1, 2021, giving Ronnfeldt sixty days to file a certificate of merit affidavit. See Iowa Code § 147.140(1)(a). On October 27-118 days after Myrtue's answer-Ronnfeldt had yet to file such a certificate, so Myrtue moved to dismiss her petition with prejudice. See id. § 147.140(6) (providing dismissal with prejudice as the remedy for "[f]ailure to substantially comply with" the certificate of merit requirement).

The same day, Ronnfeldt voluntarily dismissed her petition. See Iowa R. Civ. P. 1.943 ("A party may, without order of court, dismiss that party's own petition .... [The first] dismissal under this rule shall be without prejudice.").

The district court entered an order noting that a review of the file revealed the voluntary dismissal, that the clerk of court had closed the file, and that Myrtue's motion to dismiss was now moot. Myrtue moved the court to reconsider, arguing that dismissal with prejudice was mandatory under section 147.140, and Ronnfeldt could not avoid that statutory mandate by filing a rule 1.943 voluntary dismissal. The court agreed that it retained jurisdiction to consider Myrtue's motion to dismiss, which it then granted, dismissing Ronnfeldt's claims with prejudice.


Ronnfeldt appealed, arguing her voluntary dismissal terminated the case in the district court and that, if section 147.140 does trump rule 1.943, "the legislature usurped the authority of the judiciary when it enacted [section] 147.140," violating the separation-of-powers doctrine. We retained the appeal.

We hold that the district court lacked jurisdiction to rule on Myrtue's motion to dismiss. Ronnfeldt's voluntary dismissal was self-executing and ended the case, leaving nothing for the district court to dismiss.

II. Error Preservation and Standard of Review.

As Myrtue notes, Ronnfeldt's appellate brief fails to identify where in the record her separation-of-powers argument was raised and decided in the district court. See Iowa R. App. P. 6.903(2)(g)(1) (providing that the argument section of appellate briefs "shall include . . . [a] statement addressing how the issue was preserved for appellate review, with references to the places in the record where the issue was raised and decided"). We generally will not do a party's work for them, particularly if that "require[s] us to assume a partisan role and undertake the [party's] research and advocacy." Inghram v. Dairyland Mut. Ins., 215 N.W.2d 239, 239-40 (Iowa 1974) (en banc); see also State v. Stoen, 596 N.W.2d 504, 507 (Iowa 1999) ("[W]here a party's failure to comply with the appellate rules requires the court 'to assume a partisan role . . .,' we will dismiss the appeal." (quoting Inghram, 215 N.W.2d at 240)).

On our review of the record, we do not see where Ronnfeldt's separation-of-powers argument was preserved for appeal. "Generally, we will only review an issue raised on appeal if it was first presented to and ruled on by the district


court." State v. Mitchell, 757 N.W.2d 431, 435 (Iowa 2008). This includes constitutional issues. See id. To preserve a challenge to the constitutional validity of a statute, litigants must raise the issue "at the earliest available time in the progress of the case." State v. Mann, 602 N.W.2d 785, 790 (Iowa 1999) (quoting State v. McCright, 569 N.W.2d 605, 607 (Iowa 1997)). Ronnfeldt did not raise a constitutional challenge to section 147.140 in her resistance to Myrtue's motion to reconsider, or indeed, based on our review of the record, at any point in the district court proceedings. Because Ronnfeldt's brief fails to identify anything in the record to the contrary, we agree with Myrtue that the constitutional challenge is not properly preserved for our review. Myrtue concedes, however, that Ronnfeldt's statutory and jurisdictional arguments were preserved by her resistance to Myrtue's motion to reconsider, where she first made these arguments.

We review both a motion to dismiss and a district court's statutory construction for correction of errors at law. Struck v. Mercy Health Servs.-Iowa Corp., 973 N.W.2d 533, 538 (Iowa 2022).

III. Analysis.

This case presents an issue of statutory construction: can section 147.140 and rule 1.943 coexist, or do those provisions irreconcilably conflict? Our rules of civil procedure "have the force and effect of statute," Helland v. Yellow Freight Sys., Inc., 204 N.W.2d 601, 604 (Iowa 1973) (en banc) (quoting Johnson v. Iowa State Highway Comm'n, 134 N.W.2d 916, 917 (Iowa 1965)); see also City of Sioux City v. Freese, 611 N.W.2d 777, 779 (Iowa 2000) (en banc) (per curiam) ("[T]he


rules of civil procedure . . . have the force and effect of law." (citation omitted)), and "are subject to rules of statutory construction," State v. Luckett, 387 N.W.2d 298, 301 (Iowa 1986). In the event of an apparent conflict between statutes, "they shall be construed, if possible, so that effect is given to both." Iowa Code § 4.7. We do not apply one statute over another unless the conflict between the provisions is irreconcilable. See id. §§ 4.7-.8. "If more than one statute relating to the subject matter at issue is relevant to the inquiry, we consider all the statutes together in an effort to harmonize them. Harmonization of the applicable statutes evidences the true intent of the legislature." State v. Carpenter, 616 N.W.2d 540, 542 (Iowa 2000) (en banc) (citations omitted). Turning to the provisions at issue, we hold they are not irreconcilably conflicting.

As always, "we start with the language of the statute." Beverage v. Alcoa, Inc., 975 N.W.2d 670, 680 (Iowa 2022). In 2017 the Iowa General Assembly enacted Senate File 465, titled "AN ACT relating to medical malpractice claims, including noneconomic damage awards and expert witnesses, and including applicability provisions." 2017 Iowa Acts ch. 107 (codified at Iowa Code § 135P.1 (2018); id. §§ 147.136A, .139-.140). As its name implies, the act was limited to medical malpractice legislation. It imposed stricter requirements on the qualifications for expert witnesses in medical malpractice suits, id. § 3 (codified at Iowa Code § 147.139 (2018)), and adopted a certificate of merit requirement for plaintiffs to keep their claims in court, id. § 4 (codified at Iowa Code section 147.140 (2018)). [1]


Pursuant to these new provisions, in a cause of action against a healthcare provider that requires expert testimony, the plaintiff must, "prior to the commencement of discovery in the case and within sixty days of the defendant's answer, serve upon the defendant a certificate of merit affidavit signed by an expert witness with respect to the issue of standard of care and an alleged breach of the standard." Iowa Code § 147.140(1)(a). "Failure to substantially comply with [the certificate of merit requirement] shall result, upon motion, in dismissal with prejudice of each cause of action as to which expert witness testimony is necessary to establish a prima facie case." Id. § 147.140(6).

Our appellate courts have addressed this statute by published opinion only twice. In ...

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