Venckus v. City of Iowa City

Decision Date28 June 2019
Docket NumberNo. 18-1280,18-1280
Citation930 N.W.2d 792
Parties Joshua VENCKUS, Appellee, v. CITY OF IOWA CITY; Andrew Rich; Johnson County, Iowa; Anne Lahey; Naeda Elliott; and Dana Christiansen, Appellants.
CourtIowa Supreme Court

Robert M. Livingston and Kristopher K. Madsen of Stuart Tinley Law Firm, LLP, Council Bluffs, and Susan D. Nehring, Assistant County Attorney, Iowa City, for appellants Johnson County, Anne Lahey, Naeda Elliott, and Dana Christiansen.

Eric R. Goers and Susan Dulek, Assistant City Attorneys, for appellants City of Iowa City and Andrew Rich.

Martin A. Diaz, Swisher, and M. Victoria Cole, Cedar Rapids, for appellee.

Alan R. Ostergren, Muscatine, for amici curiae Iowa County Attorneys Association and Iowa State Association of Counties.

Joel E. Fenton of Law Offices of Joel E. Fenton, PLC, Des Moines, for amicus curiae Iowa Association for Justice.

McDONALD, Justice.

Joshua Venckus was charged with sexual abuse in the second degree and acquitted. Following acquittal, Venckus filed this civil action against the police investigator, the prosecutors, and the municipalities that investigated and prosecuted the criminal case. Venckus asserted common law claims and state constitutional claims against the defendants. The defendants moved to dismiss Venckus’s claims on the grounds the defendants were immune from suit, the claims were time barred, and the state constitutional claims were disallowed because an adequate nonconstitutional remedy existed. The district court denied the defendants' motions to dismiss, and we granted the defendants' applications for interlocutory appeal.

I.

This court reviews rulings on motions to dismiss for the correction of legal error. Godfrey v. State , 898 N.W.2d 844, 847 (Iowa 2017). To the extent that we review constitutional claims, the standard of review is de novo. See McGill v. Fish , 790 N.W.2d 113, 116–17 (Iowa 2010). In reviewing the ruling, "we accept all well-[pleaded] facts in the petition as true." Godfrey , 898 N.W.2d at 847.

II.

In February 2013, Venckus resided in Iowa City, Johnson County, Iowa. On the weekend of February 15–17, Venckus left Iowa City and spent the weekend at his parents' home in Chicago, Illinois. While Venckus was in Chicago, Venckus’s roommates hosted a party at their residence. After the party ended, a man broke into the residence and sexually assaulted an intoxicated and incapacitated woman who had remained in the home. The woman managed to escape during the assault and obtain assistance.

Iowa City Police Department Investigator Andrew Rich was the principal investigator assigned to the case. The victim reported a single assailant. The police found a wallet outside a window well of the residence. The wallet belonged to Ryan Lee Markley. The police found Markley’s handprint on the basement window used for entry. The police found a boot print matching Markley’s boot on a chair underneath the window. The police recovered a marijuana pipe stolen from the residence in Markley’s apartment. Markley’s DNA matched DNA found on the victim’s body. However, DNA of "one single sperm found in the [victim’s] cervix" matched Venckus’s DNA.

The police interviewed Venckus and his roommates. All interviewees explained Venckus was in Chicago at the relevant time. To prove his alibi, Venckus turned over his cell phone and bank card to Rich. Venckus provided the names of alibi witnesses. Venckus also obtained an expert witness who accounted for the presence of Venckus’s DNA. The assault occurred in Venckus’s home. The blanket that covered the victim while she slept was from Venckus’s bedroom, and the blanket was replete with Venckus’s DNA. Venckus’s expert witness report showed "the DNA evidence of one sperm found in the cervix represented evidence of a transfer from the blanket covering the victim and could not represent the sole evidence of DNA left by a rapist."

Rich arrested Venckus on January 24, 2014, on the charge of sexual abuse in the second degree. The affidavit supporting the arrest warrant provided as follows:

This Def[endant] stated during an interview that he was not even in [Iowa City] when the attack occurred. However, DNA evidence developed in the course of this investigation proves the Def[endant] was not only present but participate[d] in this attack and left the victim with multiple injuries requiring immediate medical attention.

The Johnson County Attorney’s Office—specifically defendants Anne Lahey, Naeda Elliott, and Dana Christiansen—prosecuted the case. From August 2015 through the criminal trial in September 2016, Venckus’s defense counsel uploaded exculpatory information onto a web-based file sharing service, which was made available to the police and prosecutors. The prosecutors took the case to trial. Venckus was acquitted.

Subsequently, Venckus filed the petition at issue. Venckus asserted claims against Investigator Rich and the City of Iowa City (collectively police defendants) for defamation, abuse of process, and malicious prosecution. Venckus asserted claims against Lahey, Elliott, Christiansen, and Johnson County (collectively prosecutor defendants) for abuse of process. Against all defendants, Venckus asserted tort claims arising under the Iowa Constitution, including violations of the following: the rights to freedom of movement and association under article I, section 1; the right to liberty arising under article I, section 1; the rights to due process, a fair trial, and equal protection guaranteed by article I, sections 6 and 9; and the right against unreasonable search and seizure guaranteed by article I, section 8.1

The defendants moved to dismiss the petition. The prosecutor defendants contended they were absolutely immune from suit. The police defendants contended they were absolutely immune from suit, the plaintiff’s claims were barred by the statute of limitations, and the state constitutional claims were disallowed because an adequate nonconstitutional remedy existed under the Iowa Municipal Tort Claims Act (IMTCA). The district court granted the motions to dismiss. Venckus filed a motion to reconsider. The district court granted the motion and denied in entirety the motions to dismiss.

III.

The prosecutor defendants contend they are absolutely immune from suit pursuant to the judicial process immunity. In resolving the argument, we first discuss the nature and scope of the judicial process immunity. We then determine whether the district court erred in denying the prosecutor defendants' motion to dismiss.

A.

To advance the practical administration of government, the law recognizes certain government officials should be absolutely immune from suit for conduct relating to the discharge of certain government functions. See Hlubek v. Pelecky , 701 N.W.2d 93, 96 (Iowa 2005) ("Absolute immunity ordinarily is available to certain government officials such as legislators, judges, and prosecutors acting in their official capacities ....").

One well-established immunity is the judicial process immunity. Under the judicial process immunity, government officials are absolutely immune from suit and damages for conduct "intimately associated with the judicial phase of the criminal process." Minor v. State , 819 N.W.2d 383, 394 (Iowa 2012) (quoting Imbler v. Pachtman , 424 U.S. 409, 430, 96 S. Ct. 984, 995, 47 L.Ed.2d 128 (1976) ). The judicial process immunity protects both government officials and their employing municipalities. See Moser v. County of Black Hawk , 300 N.W.2d 150, 152, 153 (Iowa 1981) (affirming dismissal of malicious prosecution claim against county based on county attorney’s entitlement to absolute immunity); Burr v. City of Cedar Rapids , 286 N.W.2d 393, 396 (Iowa 1979) ("The public policy which requires immunity for the prosecuting attorney, also requires immunity for both the state and the county for acts of judicial and quasi-judicial officers in the performance of the duties which rest upon them ...." (quoting Gartin v. Jefferson County , 281 N.W.2d 25, 31 (Iowa Ct. App. 1979) )).

It is well established the judicial process immunity applies to common law torts, but it is a question of first impression whether the judicial process immunity applies to torts arising under the Iowa Constitution. In Baldwin v. City of Estherville , decided last term, we intimated the immunity would apply, noting "[c]onstitutional torts are torts, not generally strict liability cases." 915 N.W.2d 259, 281 (Iowa 2018). We further noted traditional immunities "could apply to state constitutional claims." Id. We did not decide the issue, however, because the issue was not directly presented. See id.

Now that the question is directly presented, we make explicit what was implicit in Baldwin : the judicial process immunity applies to state constitutional torts. This conclusion necessarily flows from the nature of the immunity itself. "When faced with a question of whether a government official has absolute immunity from civil liability ..., we employ a ‘functional approach’ to determine whether those actions ‘fit within a common-law tradition of absolute immunity.’ " Minor , 819 N.W.2d at 394 (quoting Buckley v. Fitzsimmons , 509 U.S. 259, 269, 113 S. Ct. 2606, 2613, 125 L.Ed.2d 209 (1993) ). "Under this ‘functional approach,’ we do not look to the identity of the government actor, but instead to ‘the nature of the function performed.’ " Id. (quoting Forrester v. White , 484 U.S. 219, 229, 108 S. Ct. 538, 545, 98 L.Ed.2d 555 (1988) ); see Cleavinger v. Saxner , 474 U.S. 193, 201, 106 S. Ct. 496, 501, 88 L.Ed.2d 507 (1985) ("Absolute immunity flows not from rank or title or ‘location within the Government,’ but from the nature of the responsibilities of the individual official." (quoting Butz v. Economou , 438 U.S. 478, 511, 98 S. Ct. 2894, 2913, 57 L.Ed.2d 895 (1978) )). We grant absolute immunity for only

those governmental functions that were historically viewed as so important and vulnerable to interference by means of litigation that some form of
...

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