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John Doe and Jane Doe v. Kimberly Koenigs

December 12, 2012

JOHN DOE AND JANE DOE, PETITIONERS-APPELLANTS,
v.
KIMBERLY KOENIGS, RESPONDENTS-APPELLEE.



Appeal from the Iowa District Court for Mitchell County, Christopher C. Foy, Judge.

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Vogel, J.

Plaintiffs appeal the district court's grant of summary judgment on their claim of improper disclosure of child abuse information. AFFIRMED.

Heard by Eisenhauer, C.J., and Vogel and Vaitheswaran, JJ.

In this appeal from summary judgment, the facts are undisputed. The Iowa Department of Human Services (DHS), assisted by the Worth County Sheriff's Office, conducted an investigation of John Doe and Jane Doe (the Does). As a result of the investigation, DHS prepared an assessment report of founded child abuse, with the Does as perpetrators. Consequently, on December 10, 2010, the Does were placed on the child abuse registry. Defendant, Kimberly Koenigs, as the mother of the minor children involved in the child abuse investigation, received a copy of the DHS report completed by the investigating DHS worker. On or about February 25, 2011, Koenigs gave a copy of the DHS report to the Worth County Sheriff's office. The Does filed a petition against Koenigs on August 16, 2011, alleging improper disclosure of child abuse information pursuant to Iowa Code section 235A.20 (2011). Koenigs moved for summary judgment alleging that section 235A.20 does not create a cause of action for monetary damages against a private party. The district court granted Koenigs's motion on May 30, 2012, finding section 235A.20 only allows for injunctive relief against a private person, not monetary damages. The Does appeal.*fn1

We review a district court's ruling on summary judgment for errors at law. Cawthorn v. Catholic Health Initiatives Iowa Corp., 806 N.W.2d 282, 286 (Iowa 2011). We also review a district court's interpretation of statutes for correction of errors of law. State v. Iowa Dist. Ct., 616 N.W.2d 575, 578 (Iowa 2000).

I. Iowa Code Section 235A.20

The Does assert the district court erred in determining Iowa Code section 235A.20 creates a cause of action for money damages solely against the State and not against a private citizen. Our goal in interpreting statutes is to determine legislative intent. State v. Wagner, 596 N.W.2d 83, 87 (Iowa 1999). We determine the intent from what the legislature said, not from what it might or should have said. If the language is clear and unambiguous, we apply a plain and rational meaning in light of the subject matter of the statute. City of Waukee v. City Dev. Bd., 590 N.W.2d 712, 717 (Iowa 1999). However, if reasonable minds could disagree over the meaning of a word or phrase of a statute, the statute is ambiguous, and we resort to the rules of statutory construction. Id. When construing the statute, we read the language used and give effect to every word. State v. Osmundson, 546 N.W.2d 907, 910 (Iowa 1996). We apply all relevant doctrines of construction in determining intent. Iowa Comprehensive Petroleum Underground Storage Tank Fund Bd. v. Shell Oil Co., 606 N.W.2d 376, 379-80 (Iowa 2000).

Iowa Code section 235A.20 reads in its entirety:

Any aggrieved person may institute a civil action for damages under chapter 669 or 670 or to restrain the dissemination of child abuse information in violation of this chapter, and any person, agency or other recipient proven to have disseminated or to have requested and received child abuse information in violation of this chapter, or any employee of the department who knowingly destroys assessment data except in accordance with rule as established by the department for retention of child abuse information under section 235A.18 shall be liable for actual damages and exemplary damages for each violation and shall be liable for court costs, expenses, and reasonable attorney's fees incurred by the party bringing the action. In no case shall the award for damages be less than one hundred dollars.

In granting summary judgment to Koenigs, the district court relied on the "under chapter 669 or 670" language to determine money damages are only available against the State or a government subdivision and not available against private persons.*fn2 However, the district court declined to address the second clause of section 235A.20 that begins after the first comma: "and any person, agency or other recipient proven to have disseminated or to have requested and received child abuse information in violation of this chapter . . . shall be liable for actual damages and exemplary damages for each violation . . . ."

Under the rules of grammar, an independent clause is one that contains a subject and a predicate and makes sense standing alone; that is, it expresses a complete thought. Hamilton v. Werner Co., 268 F. Supp. 2d 1085, 1088 (S.D. Iowa 2003). The clause after the comma here is an independent clause, expressing the complete thought that "any person . . . proven to have disseminated . . . child abuse information in violation of this chapter . . . shall be liable for actual damages and exemplary damages for each violation."

Accordingly, the plain, unambiguous language of Iowa Code section 235A.20 states that "any person" can be held liable for "damages."

However, syntax, rules of grammar, and punctuation are merely guides; they are not "a highly persuasive factor in interpreting a statute, and will not defeat clear legislative intent." Shell Oil,606 N.W.2d at 380. Here, the legislative intent is revealed as:

1. The general assembly finds and declares that a central registry is required to provide a single source for the statewide collection, maintenance, and dissemination of child abuse information. The existence of the central registry is imperative for increased effectiveness in dealing with the problem of child abuse. The general assembly also finds that vigorous protection of rights of individual privacy is an indispensable ...


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