Wagner v. State, No. 19-1278

CourtUnited States State Supreme Court of Iowa
Writing for the CourtMANSFIELD, Justice.
Citation952 N.W.2d 843
Parties Krystal WAGNER, Individually and as Administrator of the Estate of Shane Jensen, Plaintiffs, v. STATE of Iowa and William L. Spece a/k/a Bill L. Spece, Defendants.
Docket NumberNo. 19-1278
Decision Date31 December 2020

952 N.W.2d 843

Krystal WAGNER, Individually and as Administrator of the Estate of Shane Jensen, Plaintiffs,
v.
STATE of Iowa and William L. Spece a/k/a Bill L. Spece, Defendants.

No. 19-1278

Supreme Court of Iowa.

Submitted September 16, 2020
Filed December 31, 2020


David A. O'Brien (argued) of Dave O'Brien Law, Cedar Rapids, and Nathan Borland of Timmer & Judkins, P.L.L.C., West Des Moines, for plaintiffs.

Thomas J. Miller, Attorney General, Jeffrey S. Thompson, Solicitor General (argued), Jeffrey C. Peterzalek and Tessa M. Register, Assistant Attorneys General, for defendants.

MANSFIELD, Justice.

952 N.W.2d 847

We have been asked to answer four certified questions of law in a federal case brought by a mother, individually and as the administrator of her son's estate, against the State of Iowa and a Department of Natural Resources (DNR) officer. The officer shot and killed the son during an armed standoff. At the time, the son was nineteen years old and suicidal.

The mother filed suit in federal court, alleging claims under the United States Constitution (via 42 U.S.C. § 1983 ) and the Iowa Constitution, as well as a common law negligence claim. The State and the DNR officer filed a motion to dismiss on various grounds, and the federal district court granted the motion in part. In particular, based on the Eleventh Amendment, the federal court dismissed without prejudice all claims against the State. On the same ground, it dismissed all claims against the DNR officer in his official capacity. The federal court also found as a matter of law that the DNR officer was acting within the scope of his employment when he shot and killed the young man. It dismissed without prejudice the mother's negligence claims for failure to exhaust administrative remedies under the Iowa Tort Claims Act. The federal court refused to dismiss the claims under the United States Constitution and 42 U.S.C. § 1983 against the DNR officer in his individual capacity.

After explaining these rulings, the court certified the following questions to us:

[1]. Does the Iowa Tort Claims Act, Iowa Code Chapter 669, apply to plaintiffs’ [state] constitutional tort causes of action?

[2]. Is the available remedy under the Iowa Tort Claims Act for excessive force by a law enforcement officer inadequate based on the unavailability of punitive damages? And if not, what considerations should courts address in determining whether legislative remedies for excessive force are adequate?

[3]. Are plaintiffs’ claims under the Iowa Constitution subject to the administrative exhaustion requirement in Iowa Code section 669.5(1) ?

[4]. Are plaintiffs required to bring their Iowa constitutional claims in the appropriate Iowa district court under Iowa Code section 669.4 ?

In answering these questions, we are guided by the principle that the legislature has the right to regulate claims against the State and state officials, including damage claims under the Iowa Constitution, so long as it does not deny an adequate remedy to the plaintiff for constitutional violations. We also conclude that the legislature intended the Iowa Tort Claims Act to serve as the gateway for all tort litigation against the State. Therefore, we answer the questions as follows:

1. Yes, as to the procedural requirements of that Act.

2. No.

3. Yes.

4. Yes.
952 N.W.2d 848

I. Background Facts and Proceedings.

"When we answer a certified question, we rely upon the facts provided with the certified question." Baldwin v. City of Estherville (Baldwin I) , 915 N.W.2d 259, 261 (Iowa 2018). Here, the federal district court adopted plaintiffs’ complaint as the statement of facts for purposes of the certified questions only.

According to the complaint, Shane Jensen, the son of plaintiff Krystal Wagner, was nineteen years old on Saturday, November 11, 2017. He suffered from numerous mental health issues and was understood to be suicidal. He had just broken up with his girlfriend on November 9 and destroyed some of her property. A warrant was issued for Jensen's arrest that day. On November 10, Jensen obtained a handgun at a relative's home.

On Saturday, November 11, a Humboldt police officer and three Humboldt County deputy sheriffs encountered Jensen hiding under a deck at a friend's home. He was ordered to come out. Although Jensen emerged pointing his gun at the police officer, the officer did not shoot because he was aware of Jensen's condition. Instead, the officer retreated to cover. Likewise, the sheriff's deputies understood Jensen's condition and did not fire their weapons.

After emerging, Jensen stood in an open area and pointed his gun to his own head. Jensen then fired a single shot into the air above his own head. He yelled words to the effect that the officers were going to have to kill him. However, Jensen never pointed his gun at any of the officers.

In addition to local law enforcement, a DNR officer named William Spece was present, having assisted in the search for Jensen. Officer Spece had been made aware of Jensen's condition. However, unlike the other officers, Officer Spece did not hold his fire. Instead, Officer Spece fired a single round from his rifle at Jensen. Officer Spece claimed that Jensen was training his weapon on the officers, but a video of the incident showed that was not true. In any event, the bullet from Officer Spece's rifle struck Jensen in the chest and killed him.

On February 13, 2019, Wagner filed a complaint in the United States District Court for the Northern District of Iowa, bringing claims both individually and as the administrator of Jensen's estate. She alleged that Officer Spece had used excessive and unjustified force, that he lacked sufficient training, that he had failed to follow protocols, and that he "failed to appropriately heed the warning he was given that Jensen was suicidal and may be seeking to commit suicide by cop." Wagner named as defendants the State, Officer Spece in an official capacity, and Officer Spece in an individual capacity.

Wagner's claims included excessive force in violation of the Fourth Amendment of the United States Constitution and article I, section 8 of the Iowa Constitution (count I); denial of substantive due process in violation of the Fourteenth Amendment of the United States Constitution and article I, section 9 of the Iowa Constitution (count II); wrongful hiring and failure to train in violation of the Fourth Amendment of the United States Constitution and article I, section 8 of the Iowa Constitution (count III); wrongful death—common law negligence (count IV); and loss of consortium (count V).1

952 N.W.2d 849

The defendants filed a motion to dismiss. Following a hearing, the federal district court dismissed all claims against the State. In so doing, the court relied on the State's Eleventh Amendment immunity, which prevents it from being sued in federal court without its consent or a valid congressional override. The court also dismissed on the same ground all claims against Officer Spece in his official capacity. See Kentucky v. Graham , 473 U.S. 159, 169, 105 S. Ct. 3099, 3107, 87 L.Ed.2d 114 (1985) ("The Court has held that, absent waiver by the State or valid congressional override, the Eleventh Amendment bars a damages action against a State in federal court. This bar remains in effect when State officials are sued for damages in their official capacity." (citation omitted)).

The court denied the motion to dismiss Wagner's federal constitutional claims to the extent they were brought against Officer Spece in his individual capacity. Thus, count I and count II could go forward against Officer Spece individually under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 and the United States Constitution. See Hafer v. Melo , 502 U.S. 21, 31, 112 S. Ct. 358, 365, 116 L.Ed.2d 301 (1991) ("We hold that state officials, sued in their individual capacities, are ‘persons’ within the meaning of § 1983. The Eleventh Amendment does not bar such suits ....").2

The court also dismissed without prejudice Wagner's state common law claims against Officer Spece, finding they fell entirely within the Iowa Tort Claims Act (ITCA), whose administrative process Wagner had not exhausted. In particular, the court determined as a matter of law that "Officer Spece was acting within the scope of his employment for purposes of the ITCA." This had the effect of sweeping all of Wagner's common law claims within the coverage of the ITCA. See Iowa Code § 669.5(1) (2019). Because Wagner had not previously invoked the ITCA's administrative process, the common law claims set forth in count IV were dismissed without prejudice as to Officer Spece.

This left the claims under the Iowa Constitution against Officer Spece in his individual capacity. In this regard, the court certified four questions of law to our court, as set forth in the introduction to this opinion.

II. Should We Answer the Certified Questions?

Iowa law provides,

The supreme court may answer questions of law certified to it by the supreme court of the United States, a court of appeals of the United States, a United States district court or the highest appellate court or the intermediate appellate court of another state, when requested by the certifying court, if there are
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7 practice notes
  • Godfrey v. State, No. 19-1954
    • United States
    • United States State Supreme Court of Iowa
    • June 30, 2021
    ...Given this voting alignment, the chief justice's partial concurrence was the "dispositive" or controlling opinion. See Wagner v. State, 952 N.W.2d 843, 858 (Iowa 2020). Under the reasoning of the partial concurrence, if Godfrey's sexual-orientation discrimination claims had not been covered......
  • Godfrey v. State, 19-1954
    • United States
    • United States State Supreme Court of Iowa
    • June 30, 2021
    ...alignment, the chief justice's partial concurrence was the "dispositive" or controlling 962 N.W.2d 100 opinion. See Wagner v. State , 952 N.W.2d 843, 858 (Iowa 2020).Under the reasoning of the partial concurrence, if Godfrey's sexual-orientation discrimination claims had not been covered by......
  • Planned Parenthood of the Heartland, Inc. v. Reynolds ex rel. State, 21-0856
    • United States
    • United States State Supreme Court of Iowa
    • June 17, 2022
    ...lead opinion. See 898 N.W.2d 844, 880-81 (Iowa 2017) (Cady, C.J., concurring in part and dissenting in part); see also Wagner v. State, 952 N.W.2d 843, 858 (Iowa 2020) (describing the Chief Justice's opinion in Godfrey as "dispositive"). [3]It may be worth noting that in 2021, both the hous......
  • State v. Warren, No. 19-0267
    • United States
    • Iowa Supreme Court
    • March 5, 2021
    ...an argument as an issue which needs to be preserved. Such restrictions do not seem to apply against the State. Wagner v. State , 952 N.W.2d 843, 858 (Iowa 2020) (considering a severance argument and developing a judicial nonstatutory tort claims framework despite the arguments not being rai......
  • Request a trial to view additional results
7 cases
  • Godfrey v. State, No. 19-1954
    • United States
    • United States State Supreme Court of Iowa
    • June 30, 2021
    ...Given this voting alignment, the chief justice's partial concurrence was the "dispositive" or controlling opinion. See Wagner v. State, 952 N.W.2d 843, 858 (Iowa 2020). Under the reasoning of the partial concurrence, if Godfrey's sexual-orientation discrimination claims had not been covered......
  • Godfrey v. State, 19-1954
    • United States
    • United States State Supreme Court of Iowa
    • June 30, 2021
    ...alignment, the chief justice's partial concurrence was the "dispositive" or controlling 962 N.W.2d 100 opinion. See Wagner v. State , 952 N.W.2d 843, 858 (Iowa 2020).Under the reasoning of the partial concurrence, if Godfrey's sexual-orientation discrimination claims had not been covered by......
  • Planned Parenthood of the Heartland, Inc. v. Reynolds ex rel. State, 21-0856
    • United States
    • United States State Supreme Court of Iowa
    • June 17, 2022
    ...lead opinion. See 898 N.W.2d 844, 880-81 (Iowa 2017) (Cady, C.J., concurring in part and dissenting in part); see also Wagner v. State, 952 N.W.2d 843, 858 (Iowa 2020) (describing the Chief Justice's opinion in Godfrey as "dispositive"). [3]It may be worth noting that in 2021, both the hous......
  • State v. Warren, No. 19-0267
    • United States
    • Iowa Supreme Court
    • March 5, 2021
    ...an argument as an issue which needs to be preserved. Such restrictions do not seem to apply against the State. Wagner v. State , 952 N.W.2d 843, 858 (Iowa 2020) (considering a severance argument and developing a judicial nonstatutory tort claims framework despite the arguments not being rai......
  • Request a trial to view additional results

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