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Cooper v. City of Reinbeck

Court of Appeals of Iowa

May 1, 2019

SCOTT COOPER, Plaintiff-Appellant,
v.
CITY OF REINBECK, REINBECK TELECOMMUNICATIONS UTILITY, and TIM JOHNSON, MAYOR OF THE CITY OF REINBECK, Defendants-Appellees.

          Appeal from the Iowa District Court for Grundy County, Bradley J. Harris, Judge.

         Scott Cooper appeals the grant of summary judgment dismissing his defamation claim.

          David L. Brown and Tyler R. Smith of Hansen, McClintock & Riley, Des Moines, for appellant.

          Dustin T. Zeschke of Swisher & Cohrt, P.L.C., Waterloo, for appellees.

          Heard by Vogel, C.J., and Vaitheswaran and Doyle, JJ.

          VOGEL, CHIEF JUDGE.

         Scott Cooper appeals the grant of summary judgment dismissing his defamation claim against defendants City of Reinbeck, Reinbeck Telecommunications Utility (RTU), and Tim Johnson. He argues the defendants are not entitled to absolute or qualified privilege on their allegedly defamatory statements contained in their letter prepared for Cooper's unemployment proceeding and in statements to the RTU board and city council. Because Cooper has not shown a genuine issue of material fact as to whether the defendants acted with actual malice or otherwise abused their immunity under qualified privilege, we affirm the district court's grant of summary judgment.

         I. Background Facts and Proceedings

         Cooper began working for RTU in 2002. Johnson began serving as mayor of Reinbeck in 2014. The RTU board terminated Cooper on May 18, 2015, and Cooper subsequently filed for unemployment benefits. In preparation for the unemployment proceeding, Johnson and RTU chair Dan Smoldt signed a letter, printed on city letterhead and addressed to Iowa Workforce Development (IWD), describing Cooper's conduct as follows:

During his time as temporary City Clerk, Scott [Cooper] locked out all other employees from access to customer files, locked out all employees from accessing credit card payments, uninstalled software from the server, and bullied [another] employee. This bullying was so bad that the city council had to step in at the end of January 2015 and move Scott's office to the back of city hall to separate him from the other employee. . . .
When the current administrator took office on April 7, 2014, several instances of Scott's misconduct while acting as City Clerk were discovered. Mainly, $68, 284.68 was transferred from the Water Fund to the RTU Fund. . . . This transfer was made without a Resolution or council approval. This is a violation of Iowa State Code 388.10. . . .
In September 2013, a RTU Bond in the amount of $155, 000 was issued. The signature on the bond was that of RTU Board Chair, Tom Bickett. Tom has denied ever signing the bond and had stated that it was not his signature. This signature was done by Scott via either a stamp or cutting and pasting a signature from a previous document. . . .
A review of the City finances was . . . presented to the city council, Scott, and RTU Board on May 21, 2014. Some of [the] concerns included a period of time when Scott was acting City Clerk. Those [findings] include: Scott took out a Federal ID number and opened a checking account for RTU with city funds, no Resolution or approval was passed by the council; Scott put RTU revenue in the RTU checking account but [paid] the bills from the city checking account; Scott allowed the RTU Board and employees to receive free cable; Scott did not publish RTU or City Minutes on time; RTU bills were not ...

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