Trobaugh v. Sondag, 02-0549.

CourtUnited States State Supreme Court of Iowa
Citation668 N.W.2d 577
Docket NumberNo. 02-0549.,02-0549.
PartiesCharles A. TROBAUGH, Appellant, v. Patrick A. SONDAG, In His Capacity as Former State Employee Assistant Public Defender, Appellee.
Decision Date04 September 2003

668 N.W.2d 577

Charles A. TROBAUGH, Appellant,
Patrick A. SONDAG, In His Capacity as Former State Employee Assistant Public Defender, Appellee

No. 02-0549.

Supreme Court of Iowa.

September 4, 2003.

668 N.W.2d 578
Martha M. McMinn, Sioux City, for appellant

668 N.W.2d 579
Thomas J. Miller, Attorney General, and Craig Kelinson, Assistant Attorney General, for appellee

CADY, Justice.

In this appeal, we consider when a plaintiff's claim accrues for purposes of the statute of limitations of the Iowa Tort Claims Act in a suit for legal malpractice arising from alleged negligence in the representation of the plaintiff while he was a criminal defendant. Underlying this issue is the determination of whether a plaintiff's malpractice claim accrues only after he has achieved relief from the conviction allegedly resulting from the negligent representation. Ultimately, we conclude that the appellant's claim accrued at the time he successfully achieved postconviction relief. For this reason, his claim was filed in a timely manner, contrary to the determination of the district court. Because we also reject the appellee's argument that the appellant's claim is the functional equivalent of claims barred by the Tort Claims Act, we reverse the decision of the district court and remand this case for further proceedings.

I. Background Facts and Proceedings.

In January 1989, Charles A. Trobaugh (Trobaugh) was charged in Pottawattamie County with assault with intent to inflict serious injury, assault with a dangerous weapon, and possession of a firearm by a felon. Assistant County Attorney Patrick A. Sondag (Sondag) signed the initial complaints filed against Trobaugh. Subsequent to signing the complaints, Sondag took a position as an Assistant Public Defender in the same county. He then became Trobaugh's defense attorney in the same case in which he had signed the initial complaints. Whether Sondag informed Trobaugh of his prior employment as a county attorney and his role in initiating Trobaugh's prosecution remains at the core of this controversy. Nevertheless, Trobaugh eventually accepted a plea agreement and pled guilty to the charges of displaying a dangerous weapon and possession of a firearm by a felon. He was then incarcerated for eleven months.

Six years later, Trobaugh again faced criminal charges, this time for a federal drug offense for which he was later convicted. Apparently because his 1989 conviction resulted in an enhancement of his federal sentence, Trobaugh began to reexamine the circumstances of his prior state court conviction. In June 1997, his new attorney discovered that Sondag had both signed the initial complaint against Trobaugh in 1989 and represented him in his defense against the same charges.

Trobaugh immediately raised Sondag's potential conflict of interest as a ground for relief in a pending postconviction action. This action was dismissed as time barred. A second postconviction relief action followed but was later withdrawn. He then filed a federal court action against Sondag and others alleging, among other things, conspiracy to bring about his 1989 conviction. This claim was dismissed on a motion for summary judgment. Finally, in June 2000, Trobaugh filed a third application for postconviction relief. This application was successful and he was granted a new trial in November 2000. On remand, he pled guilty to the charge of possession of a firearm by a felon while his other two related Pottawattamie County charges were dismissed.

In late November 2000, Trobaugh filed a claim for monetary damages with the State Appeal Board pursuant to the Iowa Tort Claims Act, alleging the representation by Sondag, a state employee, was tainted by legal malpractice. Shortly after the board denied his claim in April 2001, Trobaugh

668 N.W.2d 580
filed a civil claim in the district court. Sondag moved to dismiss the claim on a number of grounds, two of which he renews on appeal: (1) Trobaugh's tort claim is barred by the two-year statute of limitations of Iowa Code section 669.13 (2001); and (2) his claim is the functional equivalent of claims barred by the Tort Claims Act. The district court granted Sondag's motion to dismiss, concluding Trobaugh's claims were untimely because they had accrued in June 1997 when he first discovered the potential conflict of interest. Trobaugh appeals from the court's grant of Sondag's motion

II. Standards of Review.

"A motion to dismiss is properly granted only if a plaintiff's petition `on its face shows no right of recovery under any state of facts.'" Ritz v. Wapello County Bd. of Supervisors, 595 N.W.2d 786, 789 (Iowa 1999) (citation omitted). Our review of the district court's ruling on Sondag's motion is limited to the correction of errors at law. Id. We are bound by the district court's findings of fact "unless not supported by substantial evidence." McCormick v. Meyer, 582 N.W.2d 141, 144 (Iowa 1998). However, "[w]e are not bound by the district court's application of legal principles or its conclusions of law." Id. Ultimately, "our decision to overrule or sustain a motion to dismiss must rest on legal grounds." Haupt v. Miller, 514 N.W.2d 905, 907 (Iowa 1994).

This case arises, of course, under the Iowa Tort Claims Act. See Iowa Code §§ 669.1-.24. Pursuant to the act, private citizens may sue the State for the actions of a state employee "`but only in the manner and to the extent to which consent has been given by the legislature.'" Drahaus v. State, 584 N.W.2d 270, 272 (Iowa 1998) (quoting Swanger v. State, 445 N.W.2d 344, 346 (Iowa 1989)). Accordingly, we have acknowledged, "a private citizen's right of suit under the Tort Claims Act is not absolute, but rather is limited by the conditions set forth by the legislature in chapter 669." Id. This reality warrants respect for the statutory parameters marked-out by the legislature in creating the act. Nevertheless, in areas in which the act is silent or unclear, we are called upon to interpret its provisions. See Callahan v. State, 464 N.W.2d 268, 270 (Iowa 1990). We approach this task carefully, with the delimited parameters and remedial purpose of the statute in mind. See Sanford v. Manternach, 601 N.W.2d 360, 370 (Iowa 1999); Callahan, 464 N.W.2d at 272.

III. Relief After Conviction and the Discovery Rule.

The resolution of this appeal requires us to focus on the point in time at which Trobaugh's claim of legal malpractice was or should have been "discovered."1 This approach is warranted because "a negligence claim against the State for personal injuries caused by a State employee" calls for the application of the statute of limitations provision of Iowa Code section 669.13. Vachon v. State, 514

668 N.W.2d 581
N.W.2d 442, 444 (Iowa 1994). Importantly, we have previously interpreted section 669.13 as encompassing the "discovery rule," under which "a cause of action based on negligence does not accrue until a plaintiff discovers the injury or by the exercise of reasonable diligence should have discovered it." Id. at 445; see also Millwright v. Romer, 322 N.W.2d 30, 33 (Iowa 1982) ("The [discovery] rule applies in legal malpractice cases.").

Trobaugh argues that his claim accrued under the discovery rule on November 9, 2000, the date on which the court in his third postconviction relief action concluded that he was entitled to a new trial. Therefore, because his initial State Appeal Board claim was filed in late November 2000 and his petition in the district court was filed within six months of the board's disposition, his claim was made well within the statute of limitations for tort claims against a state employee. See Iowa Code §§ 669.5, .13. He supports this conclusion by way of analogy to conviction-related cases arising under 28 U.S.C. § 1983 and cases alleging malicious prosecution. In both types of cases, courts have determined that viable causes of action cannot be maintained in the absence of relief from the underlying conviction and thus a claim does not accrue until such relief is granted. See Heck v. Humphrey, 512 U.S. 477, 486-87, 114 S.Ct. 2364, 2372, 129 L.Ed.2d 383, 394 (1994); Penn v. Iowa State Bd. of Regents, 577 N.W.2d 393, 400 (Iowa 1998).

Sondag counters these arguments by asserting that Trobaugh discovered the alleged malpractice in June 1997 when his new attorney uncovered Sondag's connection to both facets of the 1989 criminal case.2 Thus, he argues, the cause of action had accrued and the statute of limitations began to run at that point, making Trobaugh's later malpractice claim untimely. Sondag also refutes the applicability of cases arising in the section 1983 and malicious prosecution contexts, noting that those cases did not involve the interpretation of the Iowa Tort Claims Act as this case does.

We agree with Sondag that Trobaugh's analogy to section 1983 and malicious prosecution cases is largely ineffective in light of the specific context in which this case arises. Both segments of claims may involve issues that overlap with a legal malpractice action under the Tort Claims Act, but the variance between the different statutory and common law...

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