Iowa Supreme Court Dismisses Lawsuit by Bars Briefly Shut Down by COVID-19 Proclamation, Finding Exceptions to Mootness Inapplicable

Posted on: March 2nd, 2022

During the COVID pandemic in late August 2020, Governor Reynolds issued a public health disaster proclamation that temporarily required bars and taverns in six counties to close their doors. Six of those establishments filed a suit seeking an injunction that would block the proclamation on grounds it exceeded her statutory and constitutional authority. After the plaintiffs’ request for a temporary injunction was denied, the Governor rescinded her order on September 15, 2020, lifting the temporary closure of bars and taverns in those six counties. As a result, the district court granted the Governor’s request to dismiss the lawsuit as moot, and alternatively, for failure to state a claim.

Plaintiffs appealed, acknowledging the case was moot but urging the court to use its discretion to decide it anyway under the voluntary-cessation and the public importance exceptions to mootness.

In affirming the district court’s ruling and finding neither exception to be appropriate, the court first addressed the voluntary-cessation exception. The voluntary-cessation exception exists to stop a defendant from trying to immunize itself from suit indefinitely by changing its behavior long enough to secure a dismissal and then resuming its allegedly improper behavior afterward. Without deciding whether the exception exists in Iowa, the court decided not to apply it, finding that the Governor did not rescind her order in response to the lawsuit or to avoid litigation, but rather the order was always intended to be temporary.

The court then addressed the public-importance exception, finding its use to be inappropriate. Under this exception, the court has discretion to decide a moot case if matters of public importance are presented and the problem is likely to recur. While the court recognized the issues in the case were of a public nature and important, the court found the conditions during August and September of 2020 were not likely to reoccur or be replicated. Therefore, a decision in this case would not prevent future clashes over different pandemic-related orders made under different conditions.

Riley Drive Entertainment I, Inc. d/b/a/ Tonic Bar, et. al. v. Governor Kimberly K. Reynolds, in Her Official Capacity as Governor of the State of Iowa and the Department of Public Health, No. 20-1510 (Iowa Feb. 18, 2022).

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