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Young v. Iowa City Community School District

Supreme Court of Iowa

October 18, 2019

THE IOWA CITY COMMUNITY SCHOOL DISTRICT; CHRIS LYNCH, Individually and in His Capacity as President of the Board of Directors and Director; LaTASHA DeLOACH, Individually and in Her Capacity as Director of the Iowa City Community School District; BRIAN KIRSCHLING, Individually and in His Capacity as Director of the Iowa City Community School District; and PAUL ROESLER, Individually and in His Capacity as Director of the Iowa City Community School District, Appellees/Cross-Appellants.

          Appeal from the Iowa District Court for Johnson County, Sean McPartland, Judge.

         Plaintiffs appeal, and defendants cross-appeal, from portions of a district court order granting a summary judgment in plaintiffs' action for injunctive relief and damages arising from defendants' decision not to submit to the county election commissioner plaintiffs' ballot proposal regarding the demolition of a local elementary school.

          Gregg Geerdes, Iowa City, for appellants/cross-appellees.

          Andrew J. Bracken, Kristy M. Latta, and Emily A. Kolbe of Ahlers & Cooney, P.C., Des Moines, for appellees/cross-appellants.

          APPEL, JUSTICE.

         In this case, we consider a series of claims arising out of the refusal of the Iowa City Community School District (school district or Board) to authorize the placement of a ballot issue at an election to be held on September 12, 2017, after a petition bearing over 2000 signatures had been timely filed with the Board. The ballot measure would have asked the voters whether they approved the demolition of Hoover Elementary School and the use of the proceeds for school district purposes.

         After the Board refused to direct the county auditor to place the matter on the ballot in the upcoming election, the plaintiffs filed suit in district court. The plaintiffs sought a writ of certiorari, a writ of mandamus, injunctive relief, and damages against the school district and individual board members who voted against placing the measure on the ballot. The defendants answered and filed a counterclaim seeking declaratory relief.

         The district court entered an injunction directing the defendants to place the matter on the ballot. Because absentee ballots had already been issued, the district court directed that the matter be placed on the next general election ballot following September 12. The district court granted the defendants summary judgment on the plaintiffs' claims for damages and any other relief.

         The plaintiffs appealed. The plaintiffs seek reversal of the district court order declining to award damages for alleged violations of the United States Constitution.

         The defendants cross-appealed. In their cross-appeal, the defendants claim that the district court erred in determining that, under state law, the school district was required to place the ballot measure supported by the petitioners on the ballot.

          For the reasons expressed below, we conclude that the district court erred in granting the plaintiffs injunctive relief. We conclude that the defendants were entitled to summary judgment on all claims. As a result, we affirm in part, and reverse in part, the order of the district court. We remand the case to the district court for dismissal.

         I. Factual and Procedural Background.

         A. Factual Background.

         In 2013, the board of directors of the Iowa City Community School District adopted a "Facilities Master Plan" (FMP). The demolition of Hoover Elementary School and the construction of a structure to become part of Iowa City High School on the former Hoover Elementary site was part of the FMP.

         The school district sought voter approval of a $191 million bond issue to finance the execution of the FMP. The election was set for September 12, 2017. The school district intended to keep Hoover Elementary School open through the 2018-2019 school year after which it would be closed, the building demolished, and the site used for other purposes by Iowa City High School.

         On June 29, 2017, the plaintiffs filed a petition with the school district seeking to require the district to also place on the September 12 ballot a narrow question. Specifically, the petition asked that the following question be placed on the September 12 ballot:

Shall the Iowa City Community School District . . . demolish the building known as Hoover Elementary School . . . after the 2018-2019 school year, with the proceeds of any resulting salvage to be applied as specified in Iowa Code section 297.22(b)?

         Prior to receipt of the petition, the school district sought the advice of counsel regarding the legality of the proposed ballot measure. In a letter dated June 22, 2017, the Board's counsel advised that the question the petitioners sought to place on the ballot was not "authorized by law" under Iowa Code section 278.2(1) (2017). According to the June 22 opinion, the demolition of Hoover Elementary School was not a "sale, lease, or other disposition" of a schoolhouse subject to submission to the voters under Iowa Code section 278.1(1)(b). The opinion emphasized that while in 2008 the Iowa legislature amended the Code to define "dispose" or "disposition" to "include[] the exchange, transfer, demolition, or destruction of any real or other property of the corporation," the legislature deleted that provision the next year. According to the legal opinion, the legislative history "expresses a clear legislative intent to remove from the voters decision making authority over demolition of school district owned structures."

         After receipt of the petition on June 29, the Board requested a supplemental and expanded opinion from counsel, which was provided in a letter dated July 6, 2017. The July 6 opinion repeated the legislative history cited in the original June 22 opinion but further cited definitions of dispose and disposition found in Merriam Webster Law Dictionary and Black's Law Dictionary as having the common denominator of "the transfer of ownership and control of property to another person or entity."

         Further, the July 6 legal opinion noted that under Iowa Code section 278.1(1)(b), the voters must vote on the "application to be made of the proceeds." As a result, according to the opinion, a disposition involves a transaction for monetary gain. The FMP, however, included an estimated cost of demolition at $500, 000. The July 6 legal opinion additionally noted that the possibility of placing any demolition before the voters would "hamstring a district's ability to properly manage and utilize its properties for the benefit of the school community."

         Regarding proposed next steps for the Board, the July 6 legal opinion stated that it was "not wholly clear" how the Board should proceed with the petition and recommended that the Board reject the petition as not "authorized by law," notify the county commissioner of elections of the filing of the petition and the Board's action, and direct that the measure not be on the ballot in September. In the alternative, the legal opinion stated that a member of the Board could file an objection to the petition under Iowa Code section 277.7.

         After receiving the advice of counsel, the Board voted against placing the plaintiffs' narrow question on the September 12 ballot.

         B. Proceedings Before District Court.

         1. The plaintiffs' petition and the defendants' answer and counterclaim. On July 17, 2017, the plaintiffs brought an action in district court seeking a writ of certiorari, a writ of mandamus, temporary and permanent injunctive relief, and declaratory relief. The plaintiffs also prayed for damages, attorneys' fees, interest, and court costs. The gist of the petition was that the defendants refused to submit a legally sufficient petition to the Johnson County Commissioner of Elections, thereby depriving the plaintiffs and voters of the opportunity to vote on the ballot measure. The defendants filed an answer generally denying the material allegations of the plaintiffs' petition.

         The plaintiffs amended their petition on September 8 to include a claim for damages under 42 U.S.C. §§ 1983 and 1988. The defendants answered the amended petition and filed a counterclaim seeking declaratory relief. The defendants asserted in their counterclaim that the demolition of the school was not a disposition under Iowa Code sections 297.22(1) or 278.1(1)(b). Further, the defendants suggested that a vote rejecting the demolition of a school building at the direction of the voters would not constrain the Board from exercising its independent power to do so.

          2. Issuance of temporary injunction. The district court held a hearing on the plaintiffs' application for temporary injunction on August 24, 2017. The plaintiffs argued, among other things, that they had established a likelihood of success on the merits, that the right to vote was threatened by the Board's actions and inactions, and that the balance of harms favored the entry of a temporary injunction placing the matter on the September 12 ballot and enjoining the defendants from demolishing Hoover until the referendum is held. The plaintiffs further asked that all early ballots filed for the September 12 ballot be invalidated as they did not present the ballot measure sought by the plaintiffs. The defendants responded that there was little likelihood that the plaintiffs would prevail on the merits, that they lacked standing to bring the action, that no right of action existed under applicable statutes, and that the public would be harmed if the Board was not allowed to conduct its business as planned.

         On September 6, 2017, the district court entered its order on the temporary injunction matter. At the outset, the district court found that the plaintiffs had standing to seek enforcement of applicable statutes and that the plaintiffs had a private right of action to enforce them. The district court further concluded that the Board was legally constrained in its challenge to the petition by its failure to file an objection under Iowa Code section 277.7 and that it lacked authority to unilaterally determine the petition was unauthorized by law.

         Turning to the question of whether a temporary injunction should be granted, the district court found that the plaintiffs demonstrated substantial injury or damages would result if an injunction was not granted. The district court granted the plaintiffs a temporary injunction requiring the Board to direct the Johnson County Commissioner of Elections to place the plaintiffs' ballot measure before the voters at the next regular election. Further, the district court denied the plaintiffs' request to invalidate early ballots cast in connection with the September 12, 2017 election; to place the referendum on the September 12 ballot; or, in the alternative, to schedule a special election on the matter. Additionally, the district court declined to enter an injunction preventing the Board from ...

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