Iowa court's use of qualified immunity threatens our rights

Sondra Feldstein is a farmer and business owner in Polk County and a plaintiff in the litigation discussed here. She took the photo above, showing the Geisler farm (the buildings in the distance) in the middle of farmland in eastern Polk County.

When the Iowa legislature debated the so-called “back the blue” law in 2021, a key component was the section adding qualified immunity to state code. At the time, public discussion focused on the impact this would have on law enforcement by providing protection from suits involving monetary damages. News stories, commentators, legislators, and Governor Kim Reynolds (when she signed the bill) all claimed qualified immunity would—depending on your point of view—either protect police officers no matter how egregious their conduct, or make it easier for officers to do their jobs without worrying about getting sued for a split-second decision.

Polk County District Court Judge Jeanie Vaudt recently applied the qualified immunity language to dismiss, with prejudice, a lawsuit plaintiffs (myself included) brought against the Polk County Supervisors over a zoning dispute. When a case is dismissed “with prejudice,” the only recourse is to appeal to the Iowa Supreme Court, rather than allowing the plaintiffs to amend their suit to address any issues of law or procedure the lower court may have found (which frequently happens).

If allowed to stand, this decision could be cited in denying any lawsuit brought against any Iowa governmental body, including the state itself. Goodbye efforts to hold governments accountable for their decisions, or for that matter, any effort to force Iowa governments to follow the law.

The doctrine of qualified immunity has critics on both ends of the political spectrum. In a National Review article from 2020, David Deerson concluded his case against qualified immunity this way:

Our American system relies on access to courts. Resolving disputes through the court system is part of what keeps society ordered and peaceful. It’s what staves off vigilantism. But it only works when access to the justice system is fair, equitable, and open to all. Qualified immunity blocks this outlet for social cohesion by making it impossible for countless individuals with real grievances even to make their case.

A lower court decision does not set a precedent. But it’s out there, and other judges looking for guidance will come across this order in favor of the Polk County supervisors’ motion to dismiss

Looking at court records since Iowa enacted the qualified immunity law two years ago, it’s clear judges and attorneys are confused about how to apply the statute. A different Polk County District Court judge reached the opposite conclusion, and said a suit against the supervisors could go forward after the plaintiff amended his filing. In Black Hawk County, a judge dismissed a suit where the plaintiff was paralyzed in a police shooting; his attorney told the Des Moines Register it was impossible to know the “magic words” necessary to avoid such dismissal. The Iowa Supreme Court allowed that lawsuit to go forward.

Given the conflicting decisions from Iowa judges on how to apply the qualified immunity statute, our case over the Polk County zoning decision has now become an matter of first impression. As it stands, the law is uncertain, and there’s nothing attorneys and judges hate more than an uncertain law.

To the plaintiffs, it seems clear the District Court misapplied the law this instance. Iowa Code Section 670.4A on qualified immunity was intended to make it more difficult for citizens who have been injured in some way to bring suit for monetary damages. (The enrolled language is enclosed below as Appendix 2.) The short explanation is that Chapter 670 of the Iowa Code deals with torts, defined as “a civil wrong, other than a breach of contract, from which a remedy may be obtained, in the form of damages.” Section 670.4A on qualified immunity applies specifically to suits for monetary damages.

Our lawsuit against the board of supervisors does not deal with a tort, and we are not seeking monetary damages.

Here’s the background:

In November 2022, the FAMiLY Leader Foundation, the social conservative organization led by Bob Vander Plaats, submitted a request to change the zoning on a parcel of land in northeast Polk County from Ag Land to Mixed Use. The county zoning staff recommended that the request be denied, citing the 2050 Comprehensive Plan and zoning laws. The Board of Adjustment agreed with that assessment, voting to deny the rezoning request.

The 2050 Comprehensive Plan, which the Polk County Board of Supervisors approved in 2022, includes goals to “protect agricultural activities” and “preserve [the] rural character of Polk County… This can be accomplished by discouraging leapfrog development and encouraging cities to grow in an orderly and condensed manner.”

The FAMiLY Leader then went to the Board of Supervisors, which voted 3-2 in February to approve the zoning change, allowing commercial development on farmland currently surrounded by cornfields. (see photo at the top of this post)

That is, three supervisors ignored the Comprehensive Plan they had just adopted months earlier, their own zoning ordinance, their own staff recommendations, and their own Board of Adjustment. In three hearings and three votes, none of the supervisors explained why they supported violating the zoning laws for this project.

Several local citizens, joined by the nonprofit land preservation group 1000 Friends of Iowa, sued the county to stop the proposed rezoning request on the grounds that it violates the county’s zoning laws.

Judge Vaudt released her order to dismiss the suit with prejudice on July 4. Readers may speculate why the decision was published on a federal and state holiday when no court was in session, and interested parties might well have been expected to be doing other things than checking their email.

I will also add that although the zoning change applies to 21 acres of land, the FAMiLY Leader Foundation has purchased a total of 80 acres. Since nearly 60 additional acres of cropland now share a border with a Mixed Use zoning district (if this decision stands), rezoning the full 80 acres to Mixed Use will no longer violate the ordinance against leapfrog zoning. And of course, no one will pay any taxes on it, since the Family Leader Foundation is a 501c(3) nonprofit organization.

The area is served by rural water which has insufficient pressure for fire suppression, there is no sewer service, and the county engineer says the roads won’t safely support the increased traffic.

So where do we stand? Our attorney has filed a notice of appeal, and now we need more money to pay the attorney. Need I add that this is why governments often aren’t held accountable? The cost of a lawsuit—in time, money, and emotional energy—is very high.

If you want to help out, there are two things you can do: spread the word, and most important, donate. 1000 Friends of Iowa (a party to the suit and the fiscal agent for this effort) is holding the funds for legal fees, so there’s accountability and transparency for how your contribution will be used.

Donations to the legal fund may be made here. IMPORTANT: Under “dedication,” choose “on behalf of” and then type in “legal fees.”

You can also find more information through the Facebook page Stop the Leapfrog.

Contact and media inquiries: Sondra Feldstein, 515-250-2330

Disclosure: Laura Belin has served on the 1000 Friends of Iowa board of directors since 2002 and is currently board president. Neither she nor anyone else on the board of directors receives any compensation from the organization. 1000 Friends of Iowa does not financially support Bleeding Heartland’s work and has no input on this website’s editorial policy.

Appendix 1: Full text of Polk County District Court ruling dismissing the lawsuit. Click the links to read or download the plaintiffs’ initial court filing, the county’s motion to dismiss, and the plaintiffs’ resistance to that motion.

Appendix 2: Iowa Code Chapter 670.4A on Qualified Immunity

  1. Notwithstanding any other provision of law, an employee or officer subject to a claim brought under this chapter shall not be liable for monetary damages if any of the following apply:
    a. The right, privilege, or immunity secured by law was not clearly established at the time of the alleged deprivation, or at the time of the alleged deprivation the state of the law was not sufficiently clear that every reasonable employee would have understood that the conduct alleged constituted a violation of law.
    b. A court of competent jurisdiction has issued a final decision on the merits holding, without reversal, vacatur, or preemption, that the specific conduct alleged to be unlawful was consistent with the law.
  2. A municipality shall not be liable for any claim brought under this chapter where the employee or officer was determined to be protected by qualified immunity under subsection 1.
  3. A plaintiff who brings a claim under this chapter alleging a violation of the law must state with particularity the circumstances constituting the violation and that the law was clearly established at the time of the alleged violation. Failure to plead a plausible violation or failure to plead that the law was clearly established at the time of the alleged violation shall result in dismissal with prejudice.
  4. Any decision by the district court denying qualified immunity shall be immediately appealable.
  5. This section shall apply in addition to any other statutory or common law immunity.

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  • Thank you, and I am happy to see this post...

    …partly as a long-time member of 1000 Friends, but much more as an Iowan who cares about land use. It is unfortunate that so much of the public debate and coverage has focused on the politics of Bob Vander Plaats and the Family Leader, when the real issue is the sprawl.

    As an interested citizen, I have spent many hours of volunteer time working on local land-use plans. Other Iowans have done the same. Those plans are the result of a lot of time and work by planning professionals, local residents, and local officials. The plans should be heeded, as should the official input of planning professionals and citizen commissions. Polk County citizens deserved a better decision from the Polk County Supervisors.

    As for the legal issues, I really appreciate this analysis.

  • More than a lawsuit

    I would not use the argument of access to courts in terms of qualified immunity. I would use the argument that a citizen’s use of the courts to address an alleged wrong is vital to democracy. It is the use of one branch of government to lever position against other branches. Courts are important if one party,, or one dominant ideology in general, is controlling decision-making and involvement in the legislative and/or executive branch. Qualified immunity certainly limits the power of the people.

    I would also raise the issue of Judge Vaudt. How many people voted in the judicial retention part of the last ballot? How many people did any research on the judges? The Iowa State Bar Association issues a Judicial Performance Review every two years. A link to the 2022 review is at the end of this comment. Judge Vaudt had some of the lowest ratings, and by far the lowest rating in District 5C. I believe her retention victory was 64%. Perhaps the majority of people voting thought she deserved to remain on the bench, but her ratings should certainly be a place to start talking about what might disqualify a sitting judge from retention.

    Citizens access to county government is also a concern. For the City of Des Moines, I have called the form of government in practice the Friends & Family Plan. If you have a friend or family member you can count on in the government, either as an elected official or as a civil servant, you can get issues addressed. If you do not, you can spend years trying to have anyone acknowledge your existence. Polk County government is not quite the same, but trying to get attention as an ordinary citizen is a laugh. The Board of Supervisors are now holding meetings every other week as hardly nobody except department heads attended. The Board does nothing at the meetings except formal votes. There is no discussion, nothing that would give an ordinary person, particularly when there is no dedicated news coverage of the county, an understanding of, let alone knowledge of, county activities.

    All three of these are factors in this lawsuit, and many other issues I have heard of and observed over the years in Polk County and Des Moines.