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State asks Iowa Supreme Court to limit public health spokesperson's wrongful termination lawsuit

The Iowa Supreme Court heard oral arguments Wednesday in a lawsuit brought by a former public health department employee against the governor and other state officials.
Madeleine C King
The Iowa Supreme Court heard oral arguments Wednesday in a lawsuit brought by a former public health department employee against the governor and other state officials.

A lawyer for the state argued before the Iowa Supreme Court Wednesday that a former Iowa Department of Public Health spokesperson should not be allowed to move forward with parts of her wrongful termination lawsuit that alleges she was forced to quit for providing public records to journalists.

Polly Carver-Kimm sued the state of Iowa, Gov. Kim Reynolds, Reynolds’ former communications director Pat Garrett, former IDPH Director Gerd Clabaugh, and IDPH officials Sarah Reisetter and Susan Dixon over her termination in July 2020.

A Polk County District Court Judge ruled in December 2021 that Carver-Kimm’s case could move forward.

Assistant Attorney General Sam Langholz urged the Iowa Supreme Court to overturn that ruling and remove Reynolds and Garrett from the lawsuit.

“First, the claims fail as a matter of law against the governor and the governor’s communications director because they did not employ Ms. Carver-Kimm, and they didn’t have the legal authority to discharge her,” Langholz said.

But Thomas Duff, Carver-Kimm’s attorney, argued that people who influenced the decision to terminate an employee can be held liable.

“We allege that [Reynolds] effectuated and put pressure on the director, or her subordinates, to terminate Carver-Kimm,” Duff said.

Advocates for public access to government records are closely watching this case, as some say it has the potential to undermine Iowa’s open records law.

Langholz argued on behalf of the state that Carver-Kimm has no basis for alleging wrongful discharge in violation of public policy, and said the court should dismiss that claim as well. He claimed Iowa’s open records law “is not well-recognized public policy”and would not protect state employees who follow the law by fulfilling requests for public information.

Polk County District Court Judge Lawrence P. McLellan disagreed in his December ruling. He wrote there is a “sufficiently clear and well-recognized public policy under Iowa’s open records law,” known as Chapter 22.

“The court further concludes that this public policy would be undermined if state employees, designated as law custodians under Chapter 22, were forced to quit when they complied with or attempted to comply with the provisions of Chapter 22,” McLellan wrote.

The Iowa Freedom of Information Council filed a friend of the court brief that asks the Iowa Supreme Court to uphold McLellan’s ruling and allow the case to move forward in the interest of preserving the open records law.

The state also argued Reynolds and Garrett should be excluded from the lawsuit because of a qualified immunity law that was passed by the Iowa Legislature nearly a year after Carver-Kimm lost her job.

Duff and multiple justices pointed out the qualified immunity law doesn’t specify that it should be applied retroactively.

“Once the cause of action accrued, her rights vested,” Duff said. “And taking away that right, by retroactively applying a statute…is a violation of both federal and state due process.”

The Iowa Supreme Court is expected to issue a ruling in this case by next summer. If the court allows all of Carver-Kimm’s claims to proceed, there may eventually be a trial in district court.

Katarina Sostaric is IPR's State Government Reporter