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Gustafson v. Bell

Court of Appeals of Iowa

July 24, 2019

SARA JANE GUSTAFSON, Plaintiff-Appellant,
v.
TRACEY BELL and SHELLY TOWNE, Defendants-Appellees.

          Appeal from the Iowa District Court for Cass County, James M. Richardson, Judge.

         The plaintiff appeals from the district court's summary dismissal of her claims for defamation, abuse of process, malicious prosecution, intentional infliction of emotional distress.

          Sara Gustafson, Villisca, pro se.

          Martin L. Fisher of Fisher, Fisher & Groetken, PC, Adair, (until withdrawal) and Kyle J. McGinn of McGinn, Springer & Noethe, PLC, Council Bluffs, (withdrawn as of filing), for appellant.

          Zachary M. Winter, Robert M. Livingston, and Kristopher K. Madsen of Stuart Tinley Law Firm LLP, Council Bluffs, for appellees.

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

          POTTERFIELD, PRESIDING JUDGE.

         Sara Gustafson appeals from the district court's summary dismissal of her claims against Tracey Bell and Shelly Towne for defamation, abuse of process, malicious prosecution, and intentional infliction of emotional distress. Gustafson maintains the district court erred because there are genuine issues of material fact in dispute that preclude the summary dismissal of each of her claims.

         I. Background Facts and Proceedings.

         Bell and Gustafson are former neighbors. Gustafson has a history of harassing Bell and Bell's family; this has resulted in criminal prosecutions for harassment and no-contact orders against Gustafson.

         Eventually, Bell went to the county attorney's office to discuss Gustafson's behavior. The county attorney advised Bell she should consider filing an application for the mental-health commitment of Gustafson.

         On September 1, 2016, Bell filled out an application alleging Gustafson was "suffering from serious mental impairment" and that she was "a danger to . . . herself or others or may be causing serious emotional injury to persons who are unable to remove themselves from [her] presence." Bell checked "no" next to the question "Do you request [Gustafson] be taken into immediate custody?" Bell attached an affidavit detailing both Gustafson's past and more recent behavior. It stated, in part:

[Gustafson] was calling the police department with false complaints (most of which I was at work when she was calling), she made statements about me killing her dog, assaulting her, stalking her, etc. She was calling my employment stating that my boss was going to be getting calls from the [Department of Criminal Investigations] as she had called and turned us in for stuff. [Gustafson] was stalking and harassing my family especially my youngest child. [Gustafson] was following her all over town, making at least 20 trips by my home daily, my child lived in fear of [Gustafson]. [Gustafson] called [the Department of Human Services] on our family last June stating my husband was showering with my daughters, which was completely unfounded. We were investigated by DHS and very humiliated by all of it[;] she was going to the church and telling them the same thing. The no-contact order was then dismissed (we protested). . . . [Gustafson] has begun chasing my daughter again (she now drives a moped). [Gustafson] has been following her all over town, with our fear being our child may not be able to stop fast enough with how close she is chasing her and she will get hurt. [Gustafson] has been driving by our home repeatedly again, making more false phone calls to the police department. . . .
. . . Last week before the no-contact order was in place, [Gustafson] chased my daughter through the cemetery as she was visiting her grandfather's gravesite along with being in front of my house taking pictures of my child and the neighbor's children. We have that captured on video of her doing this.

         The affidavit was dated August 24, 2016.

         The county attorney contacted Shelly Towne, who is employed as a dispatcher for the local police department, and asked her to prepare an affidavit and statement relating to the dispatch calls she had received from Gustafson. On September 1, Towne filled out an affidavit in support of an application alleging Gustafson was seriously mentally impaired. In the attached affidavit, Towne stated, in part:

I am employed as a dispatcher for the Atlantic Police Department. In the last two year[s] I have become very familiar with . . . Gustafson through numerous calls that she has made to our department. There have been days where she called 3-4 times within an hour. She has made several calls concerning Trac[e]y and Clint Bell, and Trac[e]y's daughter . . . . [Gustafson] always believes that they are following her and getting people to keep an eye on her for them.

         Towne listed some of the calls Gustafson had made to dispatch and their stated purpose before concluding:

On 8-23-16, we had 3 calls within 45 min. I got a call from [the sheriff] on the same day saying that [Gustafson] was also calling . . . the Sheriff's office and his cell phone. [Gustafson] is always saying she is investigating people and will call us with more information. [Gustafson] has told me before that she works with investigators out of Des Moines.

         Towne noted the dispatch center had received seventeen calls from Gustafson in approximately the previous three weeks, which did not include the calls Gustafson made to the sheriff's office or to the sheriff's cell phone.

         The application and affidavits were filed September 2. Although the application did not ask for Gustafson to be taken into immediate custody, the district court considering the application entered an order finding there was "probable cause to believe" Gustafson was seriously mentally impaired and that it was necessary to detain her. The order provided for the immediate hospitalization of Gustafson in ...


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