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Verdught v. Lee County

Court of Appeals of Iowa

August 1, 2018

DIANA VERDUGHT, Plaintiff-Appellant,
v.
LEE COUNTY, IOWA, Defendant-Appellee.

          Appeal from the Iowa District Court for Lee (South) County, Michael J. Schilling, Judge.

         A plaintiff appeals the district court judge's denial of a motion for recusal.

          Curtis R. Dial of Law Office of Curtis Dial, Keokuk, for appellant.

          Steven E. Ort of Bell, Ort & Liechty, New London, for appellee.

          Considered by Potterfield, P.J., and Bower and McDonald, JJ.

          MCDONALD, Judge.

         The question presented in this appeal is whether the district court judge abused his discretion in failing to recuse or disqualify himself from presiding over a civil jury trial. In determining whether recusal is necessary in any particular case, "the burden of showing grounds for recusal is on the party seeking recusal." State v. Haskins, 573 N.W.2d 39, 44 (Iowa Ct. App. 1997). "This burden is substantial[, ] and we will not overturn the trial judge's decision absent an abuse of discretion." Id. To show an abuse of discretion, a party must demonstrate the judge exercised his discretion "on grounds or for reasons clearly untenable or to an extent clearly unreasonable." In re Estate of Olson, 479 N.W.2d 610, 613 (Iowa Ct. App.1991) (quoting State v. Blackwell, 238 N.W.2d 131, 138 (Iowa 1976)).

         The record reflects Diana Verdught filed this suit against Lee County, Iowa, in September 2015. In her petition, she asserted the following claims against the county: (1) "wrongful discharge from employment/retaliatory discharge by constructive discharge;" (2) "violation of whistle blower statute;" (3) retaliatory hostile work environment; and (4) hostile work environment based on her sex. The matter came on for trial in August 2017. At the time of trial, the district court judge disclosed to the parties information that might be relevant to a motion for disqualification.

I would like to begin with, Iowa Rule 51:2.11 and 5 says that, quote, a judge should disclose on the record information that the judge believes the parties or their lawyers might reasonably consider relevant to a possible motion for disqualification, even if the judge believes there is no basis for disqualification.
So based upon that comment, I want to make it clear for the record a couple things.
Number one, my wife works for Lee County, Iowa, in the Public Health Department.
Second, I know-I know Mr. Buckley [a supervisor in plaintiff's department], and I've met him a time or two in connection with my wife's employment. I have no social relationship with Mr. Buckley, past or present, neither does my wife, other than the fact that they may have had contact with each other in connection with their employment with Lee County.
Next, I do know, have met, the members of the Lee County Board of Supervisors. I've met them in my capacity as a judge because I've sworn in the sheriff and deputy sheriffs for Lee County, Iowa, on three or four occasions. I've also sworn in members of the Board of Supervisors. I have no ongoing past or present social relationship with any members of the Lee County Board of Supervisors, and, of course, in my capacity as a judge, I know other members of the-or in employment with Lee County, including the Lee County attorney, the assistant Lee County attorney-attorneys, I should say. I also know Denise Fraise, who has-I think she might be the auditor. I've had dealings with her both in my capacity as a judge, and she's the one that calls me to swear in Lee County officials when I'm asked to do that. I've also met her at the Lee County office building in Fort Madison when the election results for the bond referendum for the public health building were announced.
I have no past or present social relationship with any of the individuals that I've mentioned, other than ...

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