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Mitchell v. City of Cedar Rapids

Supreme Court of Iowa

April 5, 2019

CITY OF CEDAR RAPIDS, IOWA, and OFFICER LUCAS JONES, Individually and in His Official Capacity, Appellants.

          Appeal from the Iowa District Court for Linn County, Patrick R. Grady, Judge.

         Defendants in civil action arising from police shooting appeal discovery rulings denying protective order for police investigative reports. AFFIRMED.

          Wilford H. Stone and Gregory T. Usher of Lynch Dallas, P.C., Cedar Rapids, and Elizabeth D. Jacobi, City Attorney's Office, Cedar Rapids, for appellants.

          Laura M. Schultes, Pressley Henningsen, and Emily Anderson of RSH Legal, P.C., Cedar Rapids, and Larry R. Rogers Jr. of Powers, Rogers & Smith, LLP, Chicago, Illinois, for appellees.


         In this interlocutory appeal, we revisit the interplay between our civil discovery rules and a confidentiality provision in the state Freedom of Information Act, Iowa Code section 22.7(5) (2018), to determine whether the district court abused its discretion by compelling the defendants to produce police investigative reports without a protective order preventing disclosure to the public. This tort action arises out of a late-night traffic stop. A Caucasian police officer fired gunshots while struggling with an African-American motorist. The gunshot wounds rendered the motorist a quadriplegic. The police department released the dash cam video of the incident to the public. The video went viral on social media, [1] and the shooting attracted intense media attention. A year earlier, the same officer had fatally shot another man, a Caucasian, fleeing a traffic stop. No criminal charges were filed in either incident.

         The plaintiffs, the injured motorist and his wife, sued the police officer and the City for compensatory and punitive damages. The plaintiffs sought discovery of the police investigative reports, which the defendants offered to produce subject to a protective order prohibiting disclosure to the media or other nonparties. The district court, noting the police investigation had been completed and involved no confidential informants, denied the motion for protective order but limited the order compelling production to reports prepared within ninety-six hours of the incident, excluding police internal review records. We granted the defendants' application for interlocutory appeal.

         On our review, we affirm. Litigants suing the government ordinarily may obtain relevant records through discovery notwithstanding confidentiality provisions in Iowa Code section 22.7, but a protective order may be required precluding disclosure to nonparties. Police investigative reports do not lose their confidential status when the investigation closes. But section 22.7(5) includes an exemption from confidentiality for basic facts about the incident, subject to a legislatively prescribed balancing test. Our precedent also uses a balancing test. The district court did not abuse its discretion by denying the requested protective order. The district court balanced the competing interests in confidentiality and transparency through its ninety-six-hour time limit, a carve-out for police internal review records, and directives to handle remaining confidentiality issues by redaction or further proceedings.

         I. Background Facts and Proceedings.

         On November 1, 2016, Police Officer Lucas Jones was on night shift patrol for the Cedar Rapids Police Department. At 1:17 a.m., he saw a truck driving with a broken rear license plate light.[2] Officer Jones pulled the truck over, approached on foot, and asked the driver for his license and registration. The driver, Jerime Mitchell, complied. Officer Jones and Mitchell dispute what happened over the next two minutes.[3]Mitchell got out of the truck and resisted Officer Jones's efforts to handcuff him. The two men wrestled to the ground. Officer Jones's police dog, Bane, joined the fray. Mitchell forced his way up and back into his driver's seat and began driving off with Officer Jones clinging to the open door. Officer Jones unholstered his handgun and fired three shots before jumping or falling off the moving truck. A bullet wound near Mitchell's cervical spine left him paralyzed from the neck down.

         The incident received widespread media coverage and intense public interest.[4] Protesters marched on city hall demanding the release of the squad car's dash camera footage, which the City released to the public. The Linn County Attorney convened a grand jury to review the incident, but no criminal charges were filed against Officer Jones or Mitchell.

         In February 2017, Mitchell and his spouse, Bracken, filed this civil action against Officer Jones individually and the City of Cedar Rapids alleging negligence, assault and battery, intentional infliction of emotional distress and seeking compensatory and punitive damages. The Mitchells allege that the City is vicariously liable for Officer Jones's actions. The defendants filed separate answers denying liability. The parties proceeded with discovery.

         The Mitchells requested the law enforcement investigative reports for the November 2016 shooting, as well as for an October 20, 2015 officer-involved shooting. During the 2015 incident, Officer Jones responded to another officer's call to assist with a traffic stop and search of Jonathan Gossman, a Caucasian. Gossman fled on foot. Officer Jones released Bane. The police dog sunk his teeth into Gossman's arm and brought him to the ground. According to Officer Jones, Gossman was holding a black handgun pointed at another officer and Bane. Officer Jones fired sixteen rounds at Gossman, who died from gunshot wounds. The Linn County Attorney and the Iowa Department of Criminal Investigation reviewed the incident, and Officer Jones was not charged with any crime.

         The defendants produced in Mitchell's civil action the police department's training, policy, and operational manuals without a protective order. They also agreed to produce the requested reports to the Mitchells subject to their proposed protective order modeled after the stipulated protective order entered early in the case in a federal lawsuit arising from another highly publicized police shooting. See Steele v. City of Burlington, 334 F.Supp.3d 972, 975 (S.D. Iowa 2018). The Mitchells offered to stipulate to a narrower protective order requiring redaction of witness names, addresses, dates of birth, and social security numbers. The parties failed to agree on the terms of a protective order. In July 2017, Officer Jones and the City filed a motion for a protective order under Iowa Rule of Civil Procedure 1.504. The defendants sought to prevent public disclosure of confidential documents including the police investigative reports. See Iowa Code § 22.7(5). The Mitchells filed a resistance, arguing that the protective order proposed by the defendants would permit them to determine unilaterally which documents are confidential and require the Mitchells to challenge the confidentiality of each document requested.

         After a hearing, the district court ordered the City and Officer Jones to produce

any requested law enforcement investigative reports, including electronic recordings or telephone communications generated by or in the possession of a defendant or a police officer acting in the scope of his or her duties that were compiled as a result of the reporter's own observation or investigation, including interviews or conversations with law enforcement at the scene of the incident that resulted in the injuries to Plaintiff Jerime Mitchell or lay witnesses to that event. The order covers any investigative reports or electronic communication generated or filed within 96 hours of the incident, but does not apply to reports or memorandum generated solely for purposes of a police internal review of the incident.

         The court relied on the three-part balancing test in Hawk Eye v. Jackson, 521 N.W.2d 750, 753 (Iowa 1994), to determine that the reports should be disclosed under Iowa Code sections 22.7 and 622.11. The district court did not compel the production of the personnel records, medical records, the internal police investigation records, or other documents. Instead, the court directed the parties to attempt to reach an agreement as to those records. If the negotiations were unsuccessful, the court would resolve the dispute.

         The defendants filed a motion to reconsider the ruling in light of American Civil Liberties Union Foundation of Iowa, Inc. v. Records Custodian, Atlantic Community School District, 818 N.W.2d 231 (Iowa 2012), in which we held that a balancing test was unnecessary when "the plain language of the statute supports the exemption." Id. at 236. The district court denied the motion, determining that Atlantic Community School District was limited to its facts. The district court further stated,

The Court concludes there is some ambiguity in § 22.7(5). The Court construes the statute as providing that peace officers' investigative reports, privileged records or information specified in Iowa Code § 80G.2 are to be kept confidential, but then goes on to set forth its own sort of "balancing test" language to certain information. The section creates its own exception to confidentiality, by stating that "the date, time, specific location, and immediate facts and circumstances surrounding a crime or incident shall not be kept confidential under this section, except in those unusual circumstances where disclosure would plainly and seriously jeopardize an investigation or pose a clear and present danger to the safety of an individual." Iowa Code § 22.7(5) (2017). In this case, there is no apparent ongoing investigation with respect to the records at issue, and there has been no allegation that any individual's safety will be impaired as a result of disclosure of the records. The Court finds that the temporal limits of its order allows disclosure of what the Court finds [to be] documents concerning, "immediate facts and circumstances surrounding a crime or incident."

         Officer Jones and the City filed an application for interlocutory appeal, which we granted. We retained the appeal.

         II. Scope of Review.

         We review for an abuse of discretion a district court's discovery ruling on a motion for protective order. Sioux Pharm, Inc. v. Eagle Labs., Inc., 865 N.W.2d 528, 535-36 (Iowa 2015). "A district court abuses its discretion 'when the grounds underlying . . . [the] order are clearly untenable or unreasonable.'" Id. at 535 (quoting Mediacom Iowa, L.L.C. v. Inc. City of Spencer, 682 N.W.2d 62, 66 (Iowa 2004)). "A ruling based on an erroneous interpretation of a discovery rule can constitute an abuse of discretion." Mediacom, 682 N.W.2d at 66 (quoting Shook v. City of Davenport, 497 N.W.2d 883, 885 (Iowa 1993), abrogated on other grounds by Wells Dairy, Inc. v. Am. Indus. Refrigeration, Inc., 690 N.W.2d 38, 44-48 (Iowa 2004)).

         "We review the district court's interpretation of chapter 22 for correction of errors at law." Iowa Film Prod. Servs. v. Iowa Dep't of Econ. Dev., 818 N.W.2d 207, 217 (Iowa 2012).

         III. Analysis.

         We must determine whether the district court abused its discretion by denying the defendants' motion for a protective order. The defendants agreed to produce the reports to the Mitchells for use in this lawsuit subject to a protective order preventing them from disseminating the reports to the media or other nonparties. The defendants argue that the reports at issue are confidential within the meaning of Iowa Code section 22.7(5) and that they established good cause for a protective order. The Mitchells contend the reports are not confidential and the defendants failed to meet their burden to show good cause for a protective order in light of the high public interest in this officer-involved shooting. We are mindful that "[p]eople in an open society do not demand infallibility from their institutions, but it is difficult for them to accept what they are prohibited from observing." Richmond Newspapers, Inc. v. Virginia, 448 U.S. 555, 572, 100 S.Ct. 2814, 2825 (1980).

         We begin our analysis with the interplay between our discovery rules and Iowa Code chapter 22 governing access to public records. Because litigants' access to confidential records may be subject to a protective order, we must decide whether the records at issue are confidential. We set forth an overview of chapter 22 to provide context before we interpret section 22.7(5), the specific exemption applying to police investigative reports. Finally, we address whether the district court properly balanced the competing goals of confidentiality and transparency in denying defendants' motion for a protective order for the police reports.

         A. The Interplay Between Iowa's Open Records Act and the Discovery Rules.

         "[T]he philosophy underlying our discovery rules is that 'litigants are entitled to every person's evidence, and the law favors full access to relevant information.'" Mediacom, 682 N.W.2d at 66 (quoting State ex rel. Miller v. Nat'l Dietary Research, Inc., 454 N.W.2d 820, 822-23 (Iowa 1990)). For that reason, "the district court should liberally construe our discovery rules." Id. "Upon motion by a party . . . and for good cause shown," however, a court may enter a protective order "to protect a party or person from annoyance, embarrassment, oppression, or undue burden or expense." Iowa R. Civ. P. 1.504(1).

         The Mitchells sought the police investigative reports under the discovery rules as litigants suing Officer Jones and his employer, the City of Cedar Rapids. We have previously addressed the tension between our discovery rules and the confidentiality provisions in Iowa Code section 22.7. In Mediacom, we observed, "Iowa Code chapter 22 pertains to parties seeking access to government documents and ordinarily has no application to discovery of such information in litigation." 682 N.W.2d at 69. Iowa Code section 22.7 does not create a "true privilege against discovery of . . . confidential information." See id. at 66. "[T]here is nothing in section 22.7 that suggests the legislature intended to limit the discovery rights of litigants in cases involving governmental entities." Id. at 69. "To the contrary, section 22.7 indicates the opposite because it allows disclosure upon a court order." Id. "[S]ection 22.7 does not trump our discovery rules." Id. Nevertheless, the confidentiality the legislature prescribed for certain government records can be safeguarded through a protective order allowing the litigants use of the records in the lawsuit while preventing disclosure to the public. See id. at 67 (noting "rule 1.504, regarding protective orders, comes into play" to shield confidential information from disclosure to nonparties).[5]

         B. An Overview of Iowa's Freedom of Information Act.

         Iowa Code chapter 22, the Open Records Act, is also known as the Iowa Freedom of Information Act. City of Riverdale v. Diercks, 806 N.W.2d 643, 645 (Iowa 2011). "The general assembly made the decision to open Iowa's public records." Atlantic Cmty. Sch. Dist., 818 N.W.2d at 232. "The Act essentially gives all persons the right to examine public records . . . [but] then lists specific categories of records that must be kept confidential . . . ." Id. at 233. "The general assembly [thereby] created and fixed the limitations on disclosure." Id. at 232.

         "The purpose of [chapter 22] is 'to open the doors of government to public scrutiny [and] to prevent government from secreting its decision-making activities from the public, on whose behalf it is its duty to act.'" Diercks, 806 N.W.2d at 652 (alteration in original) (quoting Rathmann v. Bd. of Dirs., 580 N.W.2d 773, 777 (Iowa 1998)). "There is a presumption in favor of disclosure" and "a liberal policy in favor of access to public records." Hall v. Broadlawns Med. Ctr., 811 N.W.2d 478, 485 (Iowa 2012). "Disclosure is the rule, and one seeking the protection of one of the statute's exemptions bears the burden of demonstrating the exemption's applicability." Diercks, 806 N.W.2d at 652 (quoting Clymer v. City of Cedar Rapids, 601 N.W.2d 42, 45 (Iowa 1999)).

         Iowa Code section 22.7 currently has seventy-three enumerated exemptions from the disclosure requirements. "Although we should not thwart legislative intent, the specific exemptions contained in freedom of information statutes are to be construed narrowly." Iowa Film Prod. Servs., 818 N.W.2d at 219 (quoting Hall, 811 N.W.2d at 485). "We have also stated, however, that 'where the legislature has used broadly inclusive language in the exception, we do not mechanically apply the narrow-construction rule.'" Atlantic Cmty. Sch. Dist., 818 N.W.2d at 233 (quoting DeLaMater v. Marion Civil Serv. Comm'n, 554 N.W.2d 875, 878 (Iowa 1996)). Against that backdrop, we turn to Iowa Code section 22.7(5).

         C. The Protection Afforded Police Investigative Reports Under Iowa Code Section 22.7(5).

         Neither the district court nor our court has had the opportunity to review in camera the police reports at issue. The documents at the heart of this appeal are not in the court record. We proceed categorically by addressing the interpretation of the operative statutory language.

         The defendants rely on section 22.7(5) together with section 622.11, which provides, "A public officer cannot be examined as to communications made to the public officer in official confidence, when the public interests would suffer by the disclosure." Iowa Code § 622.11; see id. § 22.7(5). Although we have held other privileges codified in chapter 622 are testimonial only, [6] "the privilege [in section 622.11] may be invoked at any stage of proceedings where confidential communications would otherwise be disclosed." State ex rel. Shanahan v. Iowa Dist. Court, 356 N.W.2d 523, 528 (Iowa 1984). Taken together Iowa Code section 22.7(5) and section 622.11 provide "assurance to all persons upon whom law enforcement officials rely that 'official confidentiality attends their conversations and may protect from public access the officers' ...

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