Iowa Workers' Compensation Commissioner sues state over Branstad's actions

Iowa Workers’ Compensation Commissioner Chris Godfrey filed suit against the state, Governor Terry Branstad, and several other officials yesterday over attempts to remove Godfrey from office and cut his pay between December 2010 and July 2011. The lawsuit also accuses several state employees of defaming Godfrey by publicly claiming that his poor job performance motivated attempts to replace him.

Godfrey has served as workers’ compensation commissioner since 2006 but rarely made the news until Branstad cut his pay by a third last July. The governor reduced Godfrey’s salary after Godfrey refused repeated requests to resign before his fixed term expired in April 2015. Bleeding Heartland covered the controversy here. At the time, the governor asserted that the Iowa Association of Business and Industry, a business lobbying group, “encouraged me to make a change” and “told me in no uncertain terms that they were not happy” with Godfrey’s work. That organization’s president said his group had not asked for Godfrey’s removal, but indicated that representatives of certain businesses may have discussed concerns with Branstad.

Godfrey’s general claim against the State of Iowa alleges “unjust enrichment,” “breach of implied covenant of good faith and fair dealing,” and breach of contract. His tort claims against the state allege that he was deprived of procedural due process and was discriminated against because of his sexual orientation.

His tort claims against state employees allege that he was deprived of procedural due process and of equal protection under the state constitution, that the defendants interfered with Godfrey’s contractual relations, and that several of the defendants defamed or attempted to extort Godfrey. The lawsuit names the state of Iowa, Branstad, Lieutenant Governor Kim Reynolds, the governor’s chief of staff Jeff Boeyink, the governor’s communications director Tim Albrecht, the governor’s legal counsel Brenna Findley, and Iowa Workforce Development Director Teresa Wahlert. Branstad, Reynolds, Boeyink, and Findley were present at one or more meetings during which Godfrey was asked to resign more than four years before the end of his term, which is fixed by Iowa statute. Branstad, Reynolds, and Albrecht are accused of defamation based on various comments made to the media in July 2011. Among other things, the tort claims document alleges that state employees “damaged Claimant’s standing and association in the community” and stigmatized Godfrey “by publicly and falsely claiming that their illegal and unreasonable demands for his resignation and ultimate reduction in his pay were due to Claimant’s poor work performance.” I am seeking comment on why Wahlert was named in the lawsuit.

Godfrey has asked for a trial by jury and is seeking compensatory and punitive damages totaling $1 million. Well-known Democrat and trial attorney Roxanne Conlin is representing him. This document requests a jury trial and lays out the specific allegations against the defendants.

Commenting on the lawsuit, Albrecht provided this statement from the governor’s office:

“Governor Branstad does not discriminate against anyone on the basis of race, age, religion, gender or sexual orientation. He did not discriminate against Christopher Godfrey. He did not know that Christopher Godfrey was gay until Mr. Godfrey stated so in his claim. Governor Branstad’s record over the last 30 years, both as Governor and as the President of Des Moines University, has shown Iowans that he believes a person’s sexual orientation does not affect his or her ability to do a good job.

“Governor Branstad was elected on the promise of helping Iowa businesses create jobs. After thorough research, and after speaking with Iowa businesspeople on the campaign trail, Governor Branstad concluded that a different Commissioner would be better able to keep insurance premiums low for Iowa employers. Governor Branstad’s appointments and reappointments were done with an eye toward improving Iowa’s economy.”

Attorney George LaMarca will represent the Branstad administration. He released this statement to the media:

“The Governor was acting well within the law in lowering Mr. Godfrey’s salary. Iowa law allows the Governor to increase or decrease the Commissioner’s pay. Governor Branstad utilized this law to send him a message that he was not satisfied with the direction the Commissioner was moving this department. Governor Branstad’s record is one of respect for the legal rights of everyone. That respect is well-known by all who have worked with him, regardless of their politics.

“The Governor was aware that Mr. Godfrey’s policies raised the concern of Iowa employers. The Governor shares their concern and decided that he had to exercise his executive privilege in seeking a Commissioner aligned with the Governor’s campaign message of job creation and economic development in Iowa. My firm looks forward to bringing out all of the facts which led to Governor Branstad’s decision to exercise this right under Iowa law to decrease Commissioner Godfrey’s pay.”

Speaking to KCCI-TV yesterday, Godfrey said that when the governor’s staff asked him to resign in July 2011, they warned him his pay would be cut if he refused.

Godfrey said the governor’s staff gave no explanation for cutting his pay.

“I was never told I was not meeting the expectations of my office,” said Godfrey.

Despite the pressure to resign, Godfrey has continued his job as commissioner.

“It’s hard to go into the office every day and be singled out, to be ostracized, to have people that treat you poorly on a day in and day out basis,” said Godfrey.

Godfrey said he has also been excluded from meetings.

“I think their actions are pretty clear that’s based upon who I am,” said Godfrey.

Godfrey said he’s treated differently because he is gay, “there’s no other reason.”

That strikes me as the weak point in Godfrey’s claim. How can he prove Branstad was punishing him because of his sexual orientation? Branstad’s attorney may find business leaders who will testify that they told the governor they were unhappy with Godfrey’s performance, even if Boeyink and Findley did not raise those points with Godfrey.

Proving there was a real problem with Godfrey’s performance may be difficult for the governor, however. The Work Loss Data Institute ranked Iowa number one on the institute’s 2009 Workers’ Comp report card and in the top five states on its 2010 report card.

I’m no expert on employment law, but pressuring Godfrey to resign and reducing his pay when he refused strikes me as unfair. The governor has the power to remove many state employees, but Iowa law fixes the term of office for the Workers’ Compensation Commissioner precisely in order to insulate that person from political pressure.

Share any relevant thoughts in this thread.

UPDATE: According to a representative for Roxanne Conlin’s law firm, Wahlert was named in the lawsuit because the Division of Workers’ Compensation is part of Iowa Workforce Development, and because she allegedly has been involved in “ostracizing” Godfrey.

The executive council will vote on January 17 on whether to hire George LaMarca to represent the governor at the rate of $325 per hour. That’s a discount from LaMarca’s usual hourly rate but quite high for outside counsel hired by state government. I don’t know what the appropriate rate should be for the governor’s attorney, but his staff legal counsel Brenna Findley can’t defend him for obvious reasons (she is named in Godfrey’s lawsuit).

  • agree with

    this:

    That strikes me as the weak point in Godfrey’s claim. How can he prove Branstad was punishing him because of his sexual orientation?

    in fact, if Branstad’s attorney can prove that Branstad had no prior knowledge, it’s downright frivolous.

    Also agree with this:

    I’m no expert on employment law, but pressuring Godfrey to resign and reducing his pay when he refused strikes me as unfair.

    I remember this incident when it happened because it was such a turnoff. I imagined Jeff Boeyink holding Godfrey down while Brenna Findley kicked him.

    • asking for a jury trial

      seems very smart. A judge might be more likely to find that technically, the governor had the right to reduce Godfrey’s salary. I bet jurors would be more likely to look at the totality of the situation: you’ve been hired for a fixed term, you’ve received good performance evaluations, yet the boss’s henchmen haul you in, demand that you resign and tell you your pay’s going to be slashed if you don’t comply. It just feels very wrong.

  • Hard to begrudge

    Branstad top legal counsel after reading this:

    Godfrey, who is gay, on Wednesday compared Branstad to a school bully.

    It’s a very serious accusation, and Godfrey has retained excellent counsel.

    I have a bad feeling about this, even while supporting Godfrey because what the Branstad bunch admit to doing sucks … but it may not be illegal.

    Conlin will comb through every interaction/relationship Branstad has ever had with LGBT personnel, perhaps even personal relationships. Wouldn’t you want the absolute best legal representation in this case?

    I don’t get a bigot vibe from Branstad. Bully, yes, but not based on bigotry. I think he just likes to get his way.

    This is going to be a circus with so many state govt persons on trial.  

    • Good point

      If Branstad were truly anti-gay there would be no real premise for BVP’s candidacy in 2010.  It’s not like BVP ever acted like he understood issues better than Branstad did. It was mainly about taxes and leading the charge against those gay friendly judges.  

    • I am inclined to believe Branstad

      regarding why he went after Godfrey. He got his marching orders from business groups (or certain large businesses that are influential in business groups). They told him “in no uncertain terms” that they wanted a change in the workers’ comp office, so he set out to accomplish that. It wouldn’t be the first time Branstad did what business people told him to do.

      I am not inclined to believe Branstad targeted Godfrey because of Godfrey’s sexual orientation.

      The fact remains that Godfrey’s position is one of relatively few in state government with a fixed term. A new governor gets to replace most of the department and agency heads, but the workers’ comp commissioner was confirmed unanimously by the Iowa Senate for a full term, ending in April 2015.  

      • is this disputed?

        The fact remains that Godfrey’s position is one of relatively few in state government with a fixed term.

        I imagine this is why action was limited to a salary decrease and some pettiness. If it were easy to let him go, why wouldn’t they?

        LaMarca clearly intends to focus on the legality of salary adjustment.

        Businesses of all sizes hate workers’ comp, and of course they’d like their own stooge in there, making sure that claimants get nowhere and that insurance remains as low as possible.

        After reading one of the filings, I have a hard time w/ the discrimination claim. A hostile working environment complaint is a career-ender, so I’d expected to find a stronger case. We’ll see.

        Is LaMarca only representing Branstad? Do the others need to retain individual counsel? It looks that way. Does the state have to pay to defend all of the defendants? It will be interesting to see how much the others are “worth” defending.  

  • I have read thru

    one of the three posted docs thus far. It doesn’t appear that the two sides are in disagreement over the specific events.

    The discrimination claim is based on a hostile workplace environment. According to the IA Civil Rights Commission:


    Q: What is harassment?

    A: Harassing conduct is a form of discrimination. Harassment is behavior which has the effect of humiliating, intimidating, or coercing someone through personal attack. It is behavior that will make someone uncomfortable or embarrassed, and cause emotional distress. It frequently occurs when one person wants to exert power or control over another person.

    Q: What is the definition of harassing conduct?

    A: There are two types of harassing conduct. The first type is “environmental” or “hostile environment”. The general definition of hostile environment is as follows: unwelcome conduct based on a protected characteristic which creates a hostile or abusive work environment.

    The second type of harassing conduct is based on sex. It is called “quid pro quo” which means “this for that”. The definition for quid pro quo harassment is as follows: unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors or other verbal or physical conduct where

       submission to such conduct is made an implicit or explicit condition of an individual’s employment, housing, public accommodations, etc., or

       submission or rejection of such conduct affects the employment/housing/public accommodations opportunities.

    Q: May individuals be liable as well as companies for harassing conduct?

    A: Individuals may be named in a complaint and held liable for their conduct which falls outside the bounds of the Iowa Civil Rights Act. Businesses may be liable for the acts of their employees which fall outside the Iowa Civil Rights Act under certain circumstances.

    Q: How can my business avoid liability for discrimination and/or harassing conduct?

    A: (1) Have an anti-discrimination/harassment policy which includes a reasonable method of lodging complaints. (2) Make sure that all your employees are acquainted with the policy and procedure for lodging complaints. (3) Take any complaints which are lodged within the company seriously. (4) Appropriately enforce the policy. (5) Provide training for all employees about harassing conduct and discrimination.

    Q: What is unlawful retaliation under the Iowa Civil Rights Act?

    A: Retaliation occurs when an employee

    1. participates in a civil rights investigation, either by filing a complaint or by giving information as a witness,

    2. opposes an unlawful discriminatory act, or,

    3. obeys the Iowa Civil Rights Act, and the employer then adversely affects the employee’s work relationship (such as, termination, demotion, or other conduct negatively impacting the employee’s work relationship.)

    I’m not seeing a hostile workplace environment per ICRC faq, but this is one of those areas with some latitude.

  • wc commissioner

    the obvious point ought to be that Branstad will likely spend more money defending the lawsuit than he saved by cutting Godfrey’s salary.  so much for fiscal conservatism.

    the second point is that this is political payback by Branstad to his allies at ABI.  given that the WC commissioner DOES not serve at the Governor’s pleasure, Godfrey did nothing wrong in refusing to resign.  The Governor was out of line in how he acted:  I would have more respect for Terry if he had worn a mask & used a gun to rob Godfrey rather than the cowardly way that he has acted.

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