Iowa Supreme Court Examines Qualified Immunity

Posted on: June 30th, 2023

In 2021, the Iowa legislature codified qualified immunity in the Iowa Municipal Tort Claims Act for the first time. 2021 Iowa Acts ch. 183, section 14 (codified at Iowa Code Section 6704.A (2022)). The legislation codified a qualified immunity protection and also established a heightened pleading requirement for plaintiffs bringing tort claims against municipalities or its employees or officers. Specifically, this heightened pleading standard imposes three new requirements. First, plaintiffs must plead with “particularity” the circumstances constituting the violation. Second, plaintiffs must state that the law was “clearly established” at the time of the alleged violation. Third, plaintiffs must “plead a plausible violation” of the law. Iowa Code Section 670.4A(3). Chapter 670.4A provides that a failure to comply with these features shall result in dismissal with prejudice.

In a recent decision, the Iowa Supreme Court analyzed whether it would permit retrospective application of statutory immunity and the heightened pleading requirement. The plaintiff’s petition alleged wrongful acts by Polk County employees occurring prior to the enactment of Chapter 6704A. The Supreme Court ruled that due to the absence of any express statement by the legislature making the statutory immunity provisions retrospective, the law could only be applied prospectively. A defendant is therefore, not immunized from liability for tortious conduct which occurred prior to the enactment. However, the Court determined that the heightened pleading requirements in 670.4A were still applicable to the plaintiff’s petition. Those requirements were not inherently backward-looking, but applied at the time of the filing the petition. Thus, the petition would be judged by the heightened pleading requirements even though the the immunity protections would not shield the employees.

In an earlier case, the Court addressed whether the mandatory dismissal with prejudice in Section 670.4A interfered with a plaintiff’s long-established pleading rights. Plaintiff filed suit against the City of Waterloo and Waterloo Police Department. The defendants moved to dismiss the petition pursuant to 670.4A, which provides that a failure to meet the heightened pleading requirements “shall” result in dismissal with prejudice. One day before the hearing on defendant’s motion, plaintiff voluntarily dismissed his petition without prejudice, allowing him an opportunity to file a new petition in compliance with the pleading requirements. The Court ultimately determined that a plaintiff’s right to dismiss the petition once without prejudice is a long-standing right and is not usurped by the language in 670.4A. A plaintiff may dismiss a petition without prejudice to amend and conform to the pleading requirements as a way to avoid dismissal with prejudice by the district court.

Nahas v. Polk County, et al., No. 22-0239 (June 9, 2023).

Victoriano v. City of Waterloo, et al., No. 22-00293 (January 6, 2023).

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