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Thanupakorn v. Webster County Conference Board

United States District Court, N.D. Iowa, Central Division

October 12, 2018



          Leonard T. Strand, Chief Judge


         Plaintiff Jeanette Thanupakorn is the former Webster County, Iowa, Assessor. She has sued the Webster County Conference Board (Conference Board) and Webster County Board of Supervisors (Board of Supervisors), along with Merrill Leffler and Keith Dencklau, individual members of the Board of Supervisors, alleging that they wrongfully terminated her employment as County Assessor. Counts 1 and 2 of the complaint (Doc. No. 2) are brought pursuant to 42 U.S.C. §§ 1983 and 1988 and assert claims for alleged violations of Thanupakorn's procedural and substantive due process rights under the United States Constitution. Counts 3 and 4 assert state law claims of defamation and intentional infliction of emotion distress.

         This case is before me on (1) Thanupakorn's motion (Doc. No. 12) for partial summary judgment and (2) defendants' motion (Doc. No. 14) for summary judgment. Both motions are fully submitted and ready for decision. I find that oral argument is not necessary.


         The following facts are undisputed, except where noted otherwise.

         The Webster County Board of Supervisors exists pursuant to Iowa Code chapter 331 and serves as the county's elected, governing body. Among other things, a county's board of supervisors has the power to appoint and remove various county officers and employees. Iowa Code § 331.321. However, the appointment and removal of the county assessor is within the purview of another body, the Webster County Conference Board. A county's conference board consists of “the mayors of all incorporated cities in the county whose property is assessed by the county assessor, one representative from the board of directors of each high school district of the county . . . and members of the board of supervisors.” Iowa Code § 441.2. A county's conference board has the power to appoint and remove the county's assessor. Id. §§ 441.6, 441.9.

         Thanupakorn was appointed as the Webster County Assessor in 1996. As assessor, one of her primary duties was to assess real estate in the county for tax purposes at its fair and reasonable market value. Assessed property falls into different categories, including residential, commercial, industrial, multi-residential and agricultural. To determine a property's market value, the Webster County Assessor's office manager first examines whether a sale of that property was “good” and Thanupakorn checks that finding. A sale is considered “good” if it was an arms-length transaction. After determining that a sale is a “good” sale, the assessor must assess the property at 100 percent fair market value.

         It is possible for the assessor to make individualized changes to property values so that each individual property is assessed at its true market value. However, the assessor may also use the Vanguard Computer Aided Mass. Appraisal (CAMA) system, which uses a formula based on depreciation, map factors and functional and economic market factors to revalue properties automatically.[1]

         The assessor's activity is subject to review and supervision by the Iowa Department of Revenue (the Department), which ensures the assessments are fair and comply with the law. One way the Department reviews assessments is by conducting an equalization analysis every two years for each class of property. To do this, the Department calculates the ratio of sales price to assessed value for each arms-length property sale in a particular class. If the median ratio is between 95 percent and 105 percent, the county will not receive an equalization order from the Department. If the ratio is outside that range, the Department can issue an equalization order. When an equalization order is issued to a county, the assessed value of every property in the specified class must be adjusted by the percentage mandated in the order, regardless of whether an individual property actually changed in value.

         In 2015, Thanupakorn and her staff were working on what she described as a “big project” regarding agricultural land. On August 10, 2015, the Department issued a tentative equalization order for commercial property, under which the county was required to increase the assessments of all commercial property in the county by 38 percent. This was an extraordinary adjustment. In 2014, Thanupakorn was aware that the median value, assessment value and sales ratios for commercial property were low and understood that an equalization order would be issued unless she adjusted the values herself. Thus, she had to choose between reassessing the commercial properties individually or allowing an equalization order to issue. She elected to allow the equalization order to issue so she and her staff could complete the agricultural land project. Thanupakorn set a deadline of April 1 for the agricultural project.[2]

         Thanupakorn did not discuss her decision with the Conference Board. Nor did she tell any county official that a large equalization order was forthcoming before the Department issued the order. She admitted that she did not perform her duty of assessing commercial property at 100 percent of fair market value.

         An assessor or the Board of Supervisors may protest a tentative equalization order within ten days of its issuance. Thanupakorn did not appeal the tentative order, nor did she advise the Board of Supervisors that they could do so. No county official contested the tentative equalization order within the ten day time frame.

         Ultimately, the Department allowed Webster County to appeal the equalization order even though the appeal was untimely. Four appraisers from the Department investigated the order and discovered that a number of sales did not qualify as arms-length transactions and should not have been included in the list used to determine the median ratio. The investigators inspected the properties and interviewed the parties involved in selling the properties. On October 14, 2015, Thanupakorn attended a meeting with Julie Roisen, Administrator of the Property Tax Division of the Department of Revenue, Supervisors Leffler and Dencklau, the Deputy Assessor and other members of the Department. The participants reviewed every sale that formed the basis of the 38 percent equalization order. Sales determined not to be arms-length transactions were removed from the equalization analysis. The resulting new analysis resulted in a final equalization order for a 16 percent increase, which was issued on October 19, 2015.[3]

         The Conference Board scheduled a meeting for October 27, 2015. On October 23, a line item concerning Thanupakorn's work performance was added to the meeting agenda. Thanupakorn received notice of the meeting at some point prior to October 23. At the end of the October 27 meeting, the Conference Board voted to remove Thanupakorn from her position as County Assessor.[4] On October 29, 2015, Dencklau sent Thanupakorn a notice that she was being placed on administrative leave.[5] She continued to receive her regular salary and benefits.

         During a meeting on December 1, 2015, the Conference Board voted to rescind the October 27 vote that removed Thanupakorn from office.[6] On December 21, 2015, Thanupakorn received a list of six potential grounds for removal from the Conference Board. She requested a hearing and a third meeting was held on January 13, 2016. At that meeting, Thanupakorn presented evidence in opposition to her removal. The Conference Board then found that five grounds of removal were supported and unanimously found that the substantiated grounds constituted nonfeasance, malfeasance or misfeasance in office such that Thanupakorn should be removed from office effective immediately.

         Additional facts will be discussed as necessary below.

         III. SUMMARY ...

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