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Iowa Supreme Court Overturns Verdict Against Branstad

Former Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad testifies in court against claims he discriminated against Workers’ Compensation Commissioner Chris Godfrey on June 14, 2019.
Bryon Houlgrave
/
Des Moines Register pool photo
Former Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad testifies in court against claims he discriminated against Workers’ Compensation Commissioner Chris Godfrey on June 13, 2019.

The Iowa Supreme Court has ruled in favor of former Gov. Terry Branstad in a lawsuit where he was found to have discriminated against a workers’ compensation commissioner because of his sexual orientation.

In July of 2019, former Gov. Terry Branstad lost a case where he was accused of cutting the salary of Workers’ Compensation Commissioner Chris Godfrey because he is gay and refused to resign.

The jury awarded Godfrey $1.5 million, but a ruling announced by the Iowa Supreme Court Wednesday reverses that verdict and orders that the case be dismissed.

The lawsuit dates back nearly a decade to July 11, 2011 when Godfrey was told his salary had been reduced to the lowest level allowed by statute. The change occurred after Godfrey denied repeated requests that he resign before the end of his appointed term.

Branstad’s attorneys argued at trial that the moves against Godfrey were based on industry groups' criticism of his handling of workers’ compensation cases. Godfrey’s attorneys argued, and the jury agreed, that his sexuality played a role in his treatment.

According to the majority opinion written by Justice Christopher McDonald, the Supreme Court determined that the trial judge mishandled indirect evidence of whether Branstad was aware of Godfrey’s sexual orientation. The opinion further states that the judge should have agreed to end the case on legal grounds based on the governor’s authority to determine the salaries of appointed officials.

“Under the statute, the governor was entitled to consider industry’s perception of the workers’ compensation system under Godfrey’s leadership, whether correct or not, and how that perception would impact Iowa’s economy,” McDonald wrote. “Further, under the statute, the governor was entitled to make that consideration the single most important item in setting the commissioner’s salary within the statutory range.”

Justices Thomas Waterman, Edward Mansfield and Dana Oxley joined with McDonald’s opinion. Justice Brent Appel wrote a partial dissent. Justice Matthew McDermott also wrote a partial dissent that Chief Justice Susan Christensen signed onto.

Roxanne Conlin, an attorney for Godfrey, said the Supreme Court decision intervenes on facts that were up to the jury.

“It is just not the role of the Iowa Supreme Court to reverse the findings of fact of a jury,” Conlin said. “The court is charged with deciding the law, not the facts. The jury is the Supreme Court of the facts.”

Conlin said the decision by the Supreme Court is a disappointment for LGBTQ Iowans.

In a statement, a spokesperson for Gov. Kim Reynolds called the ruling “a complete and total victory for the rule of law and Iowa taxpayers.”

Wednesday’s ruling marks the third and final ruling by the Iowa Supreme Court in the long-running case. Conlin commented that the members of the court have changed since the last ruling in 2017.

“I would like to believe that the court is above politics, but this decision makes that core belief difficult to hang onto,” she said.

Six of the seven justices on the court were appointed by either Gov. Branstad or Gov. Reynolds from nominees selected by the State Judicial Nominating Commission.

Grant Gerlock is a reporter covering Des Moines and central Iowa