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Terri Rivera v. Woodward Resource Center and State of Iowa

May 10, 2013

TERRI RIVERA, APPELLANT,
v.
WOODWARD RESOURCE CENTER AND STATE OF IOWA, APPELLEES.



Appeal from the Iowa District Court for Dallas County, Gregory A. Hulse, Judge.

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Cady, Chief Justice.

On review from the Iowa Court of Appeals.

Defendants seek further review of a decision by the court of appeals that reversed a decision by the district court dismissing plaintiff's tort claim for failing to comply with the statute of limitations. DECISION OF COURT OF APPEALS VACATED; DISTRICT COURT JUDGMENT REVERSED; CASE REMANDED.

In this appeal, we must decide if a plaintiff satisfied the statute of limitations under the Iowa Tort Claims Act (ITCA). Initially, the district court dismissed the plaintiff's first tort action against the State for failing to first exhaust administrative remedies under the Act. She subsequently filed a second action in district court within six months of the dismissal of the first action and more than two years from the time the action accrued but within six months of the dismissal of an administrative claim, which was filed under the Act within six months after the dismissal of the first tort action. The district court held that the plaintiff failed to comply with the statute of limitations and dismissed the second lawsuit. On appeal, we transferred the case to the court of appeals. The court of appeals reversed the decision in the district court. On further review, we vacate the decision of the court of appeals, reverse the judgment of the district court, and remand the case for further proceedings. We conclude the second lawsuit filed by plaintiff satisfied the savings clause of the statute of limitations under the Act.

I. Background Facts and Proceedings.

Terry Rivera was employed at the Woodward Resource Center, a home for the disabled administered by the Iowa Department of Human Services. She was terminated from her employment on October 3, 2006, after she allegedly reported to her supervisor that another employee engaged in abusive conduct.

Rivera filed a wrongful discharge suit against the State in district court on September 26, 2008. She claimed she was discharged in violation of public policy. The State moved to dismiss the action for failing to exhaust administrative remedies as required by the ITCA. Rivera did not file an administrative claim against the State prior to filing the lawsuit, believing she was not required to proceed under the ITCA because her claim was not based on personal injury. The district court granted the motion on November 10 and dismissed the case. It held the claim was a tort subject to the Act and that Rivera was required under the ITCA to pursue an administrative claim before filing her lawsuit in district court. See Iowa Code § 669.2(3)(a) (2007) (defining a "claim" under the Act); id. § 669.5 (identifying the administrative procedural requirements to be followed under the Act).

Rivera filed a claim with the state appeals board on November 25. On June 16, 2009, the board denied Rivera's claim.*fn1 On July 8, Rivera filed her lawsuit in district court a second time. In its answer, the State denied many of Rivera's allegations and interposed a number of affirmative defenses, including the statute of limitations and failure to exhaust administrative remedies.

The State subsequently moved for summary judgment. It claimed Rivera failed to file her lawsuit within two years from the time the action accrued pursuant to the two-year statute of limitations period under Iowa Code section 669.13. Rivera asserted her action was timely filed because the savings clause found in section 669.13(2) permitted her to file the lawsuit within six months of the denial by the state appeals board of her administrative claim, which she filed within six months of the time the district court dismissed her original lawsuit for failing to first present her claim to the state appeals board. The district court found the savings clause only applied to improvidently filed claims not brought under the ITCA, and the clause was not activated when the district court dismissed her original lawsuit brought under the Act for failing to exhaust her administrative remedies. The district court granted the motion to dismiss.

Rivera appealed, and we transferred the case to the court of appeals. The court of appeals reversed the decision of the district court. It concluded the savings clause applied and the action was timely filed. It found section 669.13(2) gave Rivera six months to file her lawsuit after the state appeals board denied her administrative claim.*fn2 The State sought, and we granted, further review.

II. Standard of Review.

We review a ruling by the district court on a motion for summary judgment for correction of legal errors. Wallace v. Des Moines Indep. Cmty. Sch. Dist. Bd. of Dirs., 754 N.W.2d 854, 857 (Iowa 2008); see also Iowa R. App. P. 6.907. A district court may enter summary judgment only when no genuine issues of material of fact exist and the moving party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law. See Iowa R. Civ. P. 1.981(3). The facts are viewed in the light most favorable to the nonmoving party. Garafalo v. Lamda Chi Alpha Fraternity, 616 N.W.2d 647, 649 (Iowa 2000).

III. Analysis.

Under the common law, the State enjoyed sovereign immunity from suits sounding in tort. See Boyer v. Iowa High Sch. Athletic Ass'n, 256 Iowa 337, 347--48, 127 N.W.2d 606, 612 (1964). This immunity, however, was partially waived by our legislature under the Iowa Tort Claims Act. Iowa Code § 669.4; see also 1965 Iowa Acts ch. 79 (currently codified as amended at Iowa Code ch. 669) (adding the Iowa Tort Claims Act). Now, a claim may be brought against the state of Iowa for money only, on account of damage to or loss of property or on account of personal injury or death, caused by the negligent or wrongful act or omission of any employee of the state while acting within the scope of the employee's office or employment, under circumstances where the state, if a private person, would be liable to the claimant for such damage, loss, injury, or death.

Iowa Code § 669.2(3)(a). The Act covers all tort claims against the state, subject to exceptions identified by the legislature. Id. §§ 669.2(3), .14; see also Drahaus v. State, 584 N.W.2d 270, 272 (Iowa 1998). Generally, tort liability is imposed on the state under the same circumstances that impose tort liability on a private person. Iowa Code § 669.2(3)(a).

Conceptually, the Act "does not itself create a cause of action." Sanford v. Manternach, 601 N.W.2d 360, 370 (Iowa 1999). Rather, "[i]t 'merely recognizes and provides a remedy for a cause of action already existing which would have otherwise been without remedy because of the common law immunity.' " Magers-Fionof v. State, 555 N.W.2d 672, 674 (Iowa 1996) (quoting Engstrom v. State, 461 N.W.2d 309, 314 (Iowa 1990)). "Private citizens now have the right to sue the State, 'but only in the manner and to the extent to which consent has been given by the legislature.' " Drahaus, 584 N.W.2d at 272 (quoting Swanger v. State, 445 N.W.2d 2d 344, 346 (Iowa 1989)).

One of the most prominent conditions interposed by the ITCA mandates compliance with an administrative scheme before proceedings may be initiated in court against the state. Iowa Code §§ 669.3, .5. This scheme requires the claimant to first file a claim with the director of the department of management. Id. § 669.3(2). The claim must then be considered by the attorney general, who makes a final disposition of the claim before the claimant may sue in district court. See id. §§ 669.3, .5; McGill v. Fish, 790 N.W.2d 113, 117--18 (Iowa 2010). "Improper presentment of a claim . . . depriv[es] the district court of subject matter jurisdiction." In re Estate of Voss, 553 N.W.2d 878, 880 (Iowa 1996). Obviously, the central purpose of this prerequisite is to give the state an opportunity to investigate and resolve the claim before making the courts available to resolve the claim. See Iowa Code § 669.3(1). If a claim is resolved by the attorney general, a court action is unnecessary. Thus, the ITCA requires a two-step process to initiate a lawsuit against the state in tort. The first step is to submit the claim for administrative consideration. See id. §§ 669.3(1), .5. The second step is to file the claim in district court if the administrative process fails to resolve the claim. See id. § 669.5.

These two steps come into play in conjunction with the statute of limitations period to bring a lawsuit against the state for a tort. The exclusive statute of limitations under the Act provides: [A] claim or suit otherwise permitted under this chapter shall be forever barred, unless within two years after the claim accrued, the claim is made in writing and filed with the director of the department of management under this chapter. The time to begin a suit under this chapter shall be extended for a period of six months from the date of mailing of notice to the claimant by the attorney general as to the final disposition of the claim or from the date of withdrawal of the claim under section 669.5, if the time to begin suit would otherwise expire before the end of the period.

Id. § 669.13(1); see also id. § 669.13(3) (providing that the provision is the only statute of limitations applicable to claims defined under the Act).

Thus, the statute of limitations contemplates a series of segmented time periods that govern the timeliness of an action. A claim or lawsuit "permitted" under the Act is "forever barred" unless "the claim is made in writing and filed with the director of the department of management under [the Act]" within two years after it accrued. Id. § 669.13(1). Accordingly, the first time period for the two-year limitation period requires the filing of a written claim for administrative consideration. See id.

A second time period, however, governs the second step in the event the two-year limitation period does not provide enough time to file a lawsuit after the disposition of the administrative claim. The first step normally requires time to complete because the attorney general is directed to fully evaluate the claim. See id. § 669.3(1) (requiring the attorney general to "consider, ascertain, adjust, compromise, settle, determine, and allow any claim"). The Act essentially gives the attorney general up to six months to make a final disposition. See id. § 669.5(1). If the attorney general has not made a final determination within six months, the claimant may withdraw the claim and proceed to bring a lawsuit in district court without a final disposition. Id. Additionally, a claimant is not permitted to file a lawsuit in district court pending the completion of the administrative review. See Bensley v. State, 468 N.W.2d 444, 445--46 (Iowa 1991). Thus, to accommodate the administrative process, the Act essentially imposes a second ...


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