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In re Property Seized for Forfeiture From Flora

Court of Appeals of Iowa

July 19, 2017

IN THE MATTER OF PROPERTY SEIZED FOR FORFEITURE FROM PHILLIP ANTHONY FLORA, PHILLIP ANTHONY FLORA, Defendant-Appellant.

         Appeal from the Iowa District Court for Pottawattamie County, Kathleen A. Kilnoski, Judge.

         The defendant appeals the district court's denial of a request for an award of attorney fees under Iowa Code section 625.29 (2015).

          Glen S. Downey of Downey & Mundy Law Office, P.L.L.C., Des Moines, for appellant.

          Thomas J. Miller, Attorney General, and Thomas E. Bakke, Assistant Attorney General, for appellee State.

          Considered by Potterfield, P.J., Bower, J., and Blane, S.J. [*]

          BLANE, SENIOR JUDGE.

         Defendant Phillip Anthony Flora (Flora) appeals the district court's denial of his application for attorney fees pursuant to Iowa Code section 625.29 (2015) following a dismissal of the State's forfeiture action. For the reasons set forth below, we agree with the district court and affirm.

         I. Procedural and Factual Background.

         On August 27, 2015, Pottawattamie County Deputy Sheriff Brian Miller, a member of the Southwest Iowa Narcotics Task Force, stopped Flora's vehicle for speeding. The deputy searched the vehicle and seized $120, 090 in cash. On September 4, the State filed a forfeiture action as to the seized property. On September 18, Flora filed an answer contesting the seizure of the currency and requested a probable cause hearing. On October 5, the State filed what it captioned a "Motion to Determine Disposition of Property." The State appended to the motion copies of a 2013 judgment issued by the United States District Court for the Central District of California against Flora and in favor of the Federal Trade Commission in the amount of $148, 310. A writ of execution for the judgment had been served on the commanding officer of the Southwest Iowa Narcotics Task Force, with which Deputy Miller was associated, to attach the seized money. The State noted that if it was successful in the forfeiture matter, the seized money would be distributed to the Iowa Department of Justice, the Southwest Iowa Narcotics Task Force, and the Pottawattamie County Attorney's office. The motion further noted that if the State abandoned the forfeiture action or was unsuccessful, the seized money would be available under the federal writ of execution to satisfy the Federal Trade Commission's judgment and would be distributed to persons defrauded by Flora. The State moved to dismiss its forfeiture action so the seized money could be turned over to the United States Marshals to satisfy the writ.

         On October 6, the district court, without holding a hearing, entered an order dismissing the forfeiture action. The court determined the State was abandoning any interest it could have in the seized property and observed that it need not determine the validity-or invalidity-of the federal writ in order to grant the motion dismissing the State's forfeiture action. The court directed counsel for Flora and the State to facilitate the return of the property seized from Flora to him in the presence of a United States Marshal no later than October 23, 2015.[1] The court's dismissal order also did not determine the merit, or lack of merit, of the State's seizure of Flora's cash. On October 7, Flora's counsel filed an attorney fee lien in the State forfeiture action for $30, 000.[2] After the dismissal order was filed October 6, but before October 23, federal marshals executed the federal writ and took the seized money, but they paid Flora's attorney $30, 000 to satisfy the attorney fee lien.

         On November 30, Flora's attorney filed an application for attorney fees under Iowa Code section 625.29 and an application for interest under section 535.1.[3] Flora urged he was the "prevailing party" under Iowa Code chapter 809A in the forfeiture proceeding filed by the State. The State resisted Flora's application on two grounds. First, it argued Flora was not a prevailing party, and second, Flora was not entitled to attorney fees due to special circumstances-his attorney had filed an attorney fee lien and received $30, 000 in attorney's fees out of the seized money. The court denied the attorney fee application finding that Flora was not a prevailing party entitled to recover attorney fees under the statute. The court did not rule on the State's alternative theory that Flora was not entitled to recover due to the special circumstances exception in Iowa Code section 625.29. Flora appeals.

         II. Standard of Review.

         Review of a court's denial of attorney fees in a forfeiture proceeding is for correction of errors at law. See In re Prop. Seized from McIntyre, 550 N.W.2d 457, 459 (Iowa 1996). The court is free to accept or reject the district court's legal conclusions. See Branstad v. State ex rel. Natural Resource Comm'n, 871 N.W.2d 291, 294 (Iowa 2015) ("Branstad II") (citing Van Sloun v. Agans Bros., Inc., 778 N.W.2d 174, 179 (Iowa 2010)). The standard of review for cases involving a district court's interpretation of a statute is also for correction of errors at law. Id. (citing Star Equip., Ltd. v. Iowa Dep't of Transp., 843 N.W.2d 446, 451 (Iowa 2014)). An appellate court may affirm a district court's ruling on any ground urged below, whether or not it formed the basis for the court's original ruling. See DeVoss v. State, 648 N.W.2d 56, 62-63 (Iowa 2002).

         III. ...


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