Theresa Seeberger evicted a tenant following her discovery of the tenant’s pregnancy. As a result, the tenant sought protection from the Davenport Civil Rights Commission. Following adjudication at the administrative level and an appeal to the district court, the Davenport Civil Rights Commission and Seeberger appealed the district court ruling that (1) Seeberger’s statements regarding her tenant’s pregnancy and the resulting eviction were not protected by the First Amendment and (2) the Davenport municipal code did not allow an award of attorney’s fees.
Seeberger owned a three-bedroom residential property in Davenport Iowa. In August of 2013, Seeberger rented a rooms to Michelle Schreurs and her daughter. The parties did not have a written agreement. On September 16, 2014, Seeberger visited the property and found a bottle of prenatal vitamins. Seeberger then confronted Scheur. Scheur stated that her daughter, age fifteen, was pregnant. As a result, Seeberger informed that they had thirty days to vacate the property.
In November 2014, Schreurs filed a housing-discrimination complaint with the Commission alleging Seeberger discriminated against her on the basis of her familial status by making discriminatory statements. Following an investigation, the Commission issued a probable cause finding. Following this finding, an administrative law judge (ALJ) held a hearing, finding that Seeberger’s statements were disctiminatory and awarding the Schreurs $35,000 in emotional distress damages. The Commission approved the ALJ’s decision, with the exception that the award of damages was reduced to $17,500.00.
In February 2016, Seeberger filed a petition for judicial review. Seeberger, among other things, alleged that the agency decision violated her freedom of speech rights. The district court entered a ruling, finding (1) Seeberger’s statements amounted to commercial speech, their utterance was illegal, and they were therefore not protected by the First Amendment and (2) the Davenport municipal code did not authorize an award of attorney fees in the context of a discriminatory housing claim.
The Iowa Court of Appeals found that although Seeberger was allowed to discriminate on the basis of familiar status, finding that Seeberger owned less than three residential rental units and was therefore not subject to the municipal code provision, she nonetheless was disallowed from making a statement concerning this lawful discrimination. The Court of Appeals found that the code’s prohibition on Seeberger’s speech was not in violation of the First Amendment and that the legitimate ends of preventing the “stigmas associated with knowingly being discriminated against,” was not more extensive than necessary to serve the substantial interests in preventing discriminatory statements. The Court of Appeals additionally found that attorney’s fees were not barred in administrative proceedings and remanded the case for the district court to consider whether the attorney-fee award was excessive.
An application for further review with the Iowa Supreme Court has been filed.
Theresa Seeberger v. Davenport Civil Rights Commission, No. 16-1534, 2018 WL 1863209, at *1 (Iowa Ct. App. Apr. 18, 2018)