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Lee v. State & Polk County Clerk of Court

Supreme Court of Iowa

March 28, 2014

TINA LEE, Appellee,

Page 669

Appeal fro the Iowa District Court for Polk County, James M. Richardson, Judge. Defendants appeal the district court's remand order that reinstated plaintiff to her former employment and awarded wages and benefits.

Thomas J. Miller, Attorney General, Jeffrey S. Thompson, Deputy Attorney General, and Jeffrey C. Peterzalek and Meghan L. Gavin, Assistant Attorneys General, for appellants.

Paige E. Fiedler and Brooke C. Timmer of Fiedler & Timmer, P.L.L.C., Urbandale, for appellee.

All justices concur except Cady, C.J., and Wiggins, J., who dissent.


Page 670

WATERMAN, Justice.

This case returns to us on defendants' appeal following a remand. On October 29, 2007, after a jury found the State terminated plaintiff in violation of her right to self-care leave under the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA), 29 U.S.C. § 2612(a)(1)(D) (2000), the district court awarded plaintiff money damages and ordered the State to reinstate her to her former position in the Polk County Clerk of Court Office. Defendants appealed and successfully requested a stay of plaintiff's reinstatement pending the outcome. In Lee v. State ( Lee I ), we held sovereign immunity precluded plaintiff's judgment for money damages against the State. 815 N.W.2d 731, 743 (Iowa 2012). We remanded the case for the district court to determine plaintiff's entitlement to prospective injunctive relief against a state official under Ex parte Young, 209 U.S. 123, 155-56, 28 S.Ct. 441, 452, 52 L.Ed. 714, 727 (1908). Lee I, 815 N.W.2d at 743. On October 18, 2012, the district court again ordered plaintiff reinstated and awarded her lost wages and benefits from the date of the original 2007 reinstatement order. The district court concluded that plaintiff was entitled to reinstatement as a form of injunctive relief and that the State had waived its sovereign immunity by seeking a stay of the reinstatement order and promising to pay plaintiff's interim wages and benefits if we affirmed the 2007 order.

Page 671

Defendants nevertheless contend that the new reinstatement order should be reversed because plaintiff failed to adequately plead claims for such relief under Ex parte Young and the award of wages since 2007 is barred by sovereign immunity. We disagree. Plaintiff's pleadings were sufficient to preserve her right to Ex parte Young remedies, and the parties litigated the reinstatement remedy by consent. Further, this case is strikingly similar to Barnes v. Bosley in which the plaintiff was wrongfully terminated from the St. Louis City Circuit Court Clerk's Office. 828 F.2d 1253, 1255 (8th Cir. 1987). We agree with the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals holding in that case: the Eleventh Amendment to the United States Constitution does not bar an award of wages and benefits for the period a reinstatement order was stayed. See Barnes, 828 F.2d at 1257. We therefore affirm the district court's 2012 order.

I. Background Facts and Proceedings.

On November 10, 2004, after taking FMLA leave to cope with anxiety, Tina Lee was terminated from her employment with the judicial branch of the State of Iowa, in the office of the Polk County Clerk of Court. Lee sued the State of Iowa and the Polk County Clerk of Court, alleging violations of her FMLA rights. A jury ultimately found in favor of Lee and awarded her past lost earnings. The district court awarded additional amounts for Lee's attorney fees, litigation expenses, and interest and ordered her reinstated to her former position. Additional detail concerning Lee's employment and the parties' claims and defenses are set forth in Lee I. See 815 N.W.2d at 734-35. We will now focus on the facts relevant to this postremand appeal.

At the outset of her lawsuit, Lee demanded the following remedies in her petition's prayer for relief:

[J]udgment against Defendants, jointly and severally, in an amount which will fully and fairly compensate her for her injuries and damages, for liquidated damages, for interest as allowed by law, for attorneys' fees, for the costs of this action, and for such other relief as may be just in the circumstances and consistent with the purpose of the Family and Medical Leave Act.

The case proceeded to trial, which commenced September 10, 2007. On the witness stand, Lee asked the court to reinstate her to her former position, and defendants cross-examined her on the propriety of reinstatement in light of Lee's soured relationship with her supervisor in the clerk's office. Outside the presence of the jury, the district court discussed the remedy of reinstatement with the parties, and defendants acknowledged " reinstatement is one of the equitable remedies available to the Court if the jury concludes that there was liability." The district court responded, " That's an agreement by both parties, that if there's a finding for the Plaintiff this Court has the subject matter jurisdiction to reinstate the Plaintiff." The parties also stipulated the issue of front pay would be reserved for the district court.

Two claims under the FMLA were submitted to the jury: wrongful discharge and retaliation. On September 13, the jury found in favor of Lee on both claims and awarded her damages for past lost earnings in the amount of $165,122. Defendants moved for a judgment notwithstanding the verdict, arguing sovereign immunity precluded judgment against the State. Lee resisted this motion and filed her own posttrial " Motion for Reinstatement

Page 672

and Other Equitable Relief," requesting that the court order defendants to reinstate her, adopt an FMLA retaliation policy, and provide all employees with FMLA training. Defendants resisted, arguing reinstatement was impractical. On October 15, the district court held a hearing on the posttrial motions. The district court ruled on the record in favor of Lee, ordering her reinstatement.

The district court memorialized its oral rulings in a written order entered October 29. The district court concluded Congress abrogated the State's sovereign immunity as to the self-care provision of the FMLA. The district court therefore awarded Lee past lost earnings in the amount of the jury verdict of $165,122, with $19,127 in prejudgment interest, plus $68,109 in attorney fees and $5734 in litigation expenses. The district court ordered the State to reinstate Lee and pay her lost wages and benefits in the amount of $1146 weekly from the date of the jury verdict until the date of her reinstatement. Additionally, for the purposes of retirement benefits and FMLA leave, the court ordered defendants to credit Lee for years of service as if she had never been terminated.

Defendants filed a notice of appeal and a " Motion to Stay All Proceedings Pending Appeal without Filing a Supersedeas Bond." In the motion to stay, defendants represented to the district court,

[t]he plaintiff will not suffer any irreparable harm or injury if the district court stays all proceedings. If the Supreme Court affirms the district court, then the State of Iowa will pay the judgment, plus any amounts owed to the plaintiff during the time she should have been reinstated and when she is reinstated. Thus, the plaintiff will be made whole.

Lee agreed to stay collection of the monetary judgment, but asked the district court to compel her reinstatement.

In a January 25, 2008 ruling on the motion to stay, the district court concluded:

Plaintiff here has shown that her loss has been, and continues to be, substantial. A stay of reinstatement would require Plaintiff to wait another 18-24 months before allowing her to return to work. This delay in salary and benefits would surely cause significant harm to Plaintiff as she has been unable to find comparable employment.

The district court also considered defendants' likelihood of success on the merits, whether defendants would suffer irreparable injury in the absence of a stay, and the public interests implicated. The district court ruled all of the factors supported a denial of the stay of reinstatement and therefore ordered defendants to " immediately reinstate Plaintiff to her previous position."

On February 16, defendants asked our court to stay Lee's reinstatement during their appeal, repeating their assurance that Lee would not suffer irreparable harm from a stay. We granted defendants' motion, staying Lee's reinstatement. We transferred the case to the court of appeals, which affirmed the judgment in favor of Lee. We granted defendants' application for further review.

We held the appeal in abeyance pending a decision by the United States Supreme Court on the issue of whether the self-care provision of the FMLA validly abrogated the states' sovereign immunity from suit. That decision, Coleman v. Court of Appeals of Maryland, held Congress failed to " identify a pattern of constitutional violations and tailor a remedy congruent and proportional to the documented violations," and therefore, Congress failed to abrogate

Page 673

sovereign immunity. __ U.S. __, __, 132 S.Ct. 1327, 1338, 182 L.Ed.2d 296, 307 (2012) (plurality opinion). Accordingly, we held on May 25, 2012 that sovereign immunity precluded Lee's judgment against the State for money damages. Lee I, 815 N.W.2d at 743. But, we noted injunctive relief remained available to Lee under the doctrine of Ex parte Young:

Nevertheless, states are bound to follow the self-care provisions of the FMLA, and state employees who are wrongfully denied self-care leave are still permitted to seek injunctive relief against the responsible state official. [ Coleman, __ U.S. at __, 132 S.Ct. at 1350, 182 L.Ed.2d at 320 (Ginsburg, J., dissenting)] (citing Ex parte Young, 209 U.S. 123, 155-56, 28 S.Ct. 441, 452, 52 L.Ed. 714, 727 (1908) (establishing proposition that suit for injunctive relief against state official does not offend sovereign immunity)). . . .
In this case, the judgment entered by the district court was predicated on legal error. Accordingly, the noninjunctive relief granted in the judgment cannot stand, and we must reverse the district court. We remand the case to the district court to determine what relief granted in its judgment is still available to Lee within the framework of this lawsuit, findings of the jury at trial, and the cloak of immunity protecting the State. The district court shall permit the parties to be heard on this issue and enter a new final judgment for such relief. We do not retain jurisdiction.

Id. (emphasis added).

On remand, Lee filed a " Motion to Enforce Order Granting Equitable Relief," requesting enforcement of the 2007 order's injunctive relief, including her reinstatement, restoration of her retirement and FMLA benefits, and lost wages and benefits of $1146 weekly from the date of the 2007 order. Lee alternatively argued the State had waived sovereign immunity by stipulating it would pay her lost wages and benefits if the reinstatement order was affirmed. Lee also moved to amend her petition to expand her prayer for relief and to specifically name Lois Leary as the Polk County Clerk of Court who fired her in 2004.

Defendants resisted Lee's motions. They argued Lee's motion to amend was untimely and beyond the scope of our remand. Defendants contended Ex parte Young injunctive relief is available only against state officials sued in their official capacity and asserted Lee " has never named any state official at all, let alone one named in his or her official capacity." Further, defendants argued Lee did not request prospective injunctive relief in her original petition. Defendants also challenged the characterization of lost wages and benefits as prospective injunctive relief, arguing that an award of lost wages and benefits is essentially a retroactive monetary award barred by sovereign immunity. Finally, defendants argued they did not waive immunity by pursuing a stay of Lee's reinstatement because they had agreed to pay Lee's lost wages only if our court affirmed the district court in Lee I --and we had instead reversed and remanded for further proceedings.

The district court entered its ruling on these motions on October 18, 2012. The district court found Lee's original petition suing the " Clerk of Court" was sufficient to allow prospective injunctive remedies under Ex parte Young, stating " the Clerk of the Court is a state official and it is unnecessary to name him or her by his or her given name, as long as his or her official title is named." The district court found it significant that Lee I remanded the case to determine " what relief granted in the judgment is still available to Lee,"

Page 674

without suggesting that the " Clerk of Court" was not a proper party. The district court ruled that the date of the original judgment, October 29, 2007, was " the effective date requiring prospective injunctive relief." The district court found:

The stay did not change the effective date of Plaintiff's reinstatement, but prevented enforcement of such reinstatement . . . . [T]his Court finds that the Eleventh Amendment does not bar an award of pay to Plaintiff for the period during which the stay was in effect. This Court ordered prospective injunctive relief requiring future compliance and liability for payment of Plaintiff's wages and benefits during this time, which is permissible.

The district court also agreed with Lee's alternative argument, that defendants waived sovereign immunity when requesting a stay of her reinstatement. The district court concluded:

Defendants made assertions that if the Supreme Court affirms the District Court, it will pay all damages stemming from the stay. The Supreme Court did not specifically reverse the District Court's injunctive relief, so it is still the rule of the case. If Defendants did have immunity from the monetary damages stemming from their stay of the injunctive relief, then they clearly waived it when they made the promise to pay such damages.

Thus, the district court denied Lee's motion to amend as moot and ordered defendants to immediately reinstate Lee, pay her lost wages and benefits from October 29, 2007, to the date of reinstatement in the amount of $1146 weekly,[1] provide her retirement and FMLA ...

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