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Raw v. Spofford

Court of Appeals of Iowa

November 6, 2019

ROBERT RAW, Plaintiff-Appellant,
CHRISTINA SPOFFORD, Defendant-Appellee.

          Appeal from the Iowa District Court for Johnson County, Christopher L. Bruns, Judge.

         A plaintiff appeals the district court's grant of summary judgment in favor of a defendant.

          Vernon P. Squires and Melissa A. Carrington (until withdrawal) of Bradley & Riley PC, Cedar Rapids, for appellant.

          Thomas J. Miller, Attorney General, and George A. Carroll, Assistant Attorney General, for appellee.

          Heard by Vaitheswaran, P.J., and Potterfield and Mullins, JJ.

          MULLINS, JUDGE.

         Dr. Robert Raw appeals the district court's grant of summary judgment on statute-of-limitation grounds in favor of Dr. Christina Spofford on his claims of defamation. Raw generally argues the court erred in concluding he was on inquiry notice of his claims in 2014, thus barring his 2017 petition as outside the two-year statute of limitations contained in Iowa Code section 614.1(2) (2017).

         I. Background Facts and Proceedings

         Raw began working at the University of Iowa (University) in 2004. Since then, he has worked as an anesthesiologist, clinical associate professor, and professor. Spofford began working as a trainee in the anesthesia department of the University's college of medicine in 2003. She became a member of the faculty in 2008. This litigation concerns allegations of potential sexual harassment against Raw and reported by Spofford in her role as a supervisory employee. The University's sexual harassment policy requires supervisory employees, such as Spofford, to inform the office of equal opportunity and diversity (EOD) or the office of the sexual misconduct response coordinator of any report of possible sexual harassment made to them by a subordinate.

         In the spring of 2010, a trainee under Spofford's supervision, M.K., visited with Spofford about interactions she shared with Raw. Based on these discussions, Spofford believed University policy required her to report what M.K. described, considering the alleged interactions as potential sexual harassment on the part of Raw.[1] Spofford approached Dr. Timothy Brennan and sought advice relative to the information she received from M.K. Brennan advised Spofford she, as M.K.'s supervisor and per University policy, had to report the information. Spofford also visited with Dr. Lois Geist. In her role as associate dean of faculty affairs and development, Geist is responsible for oversight of policies and procedures. In Geist's opinion, "the interaction as described involved possible sexual harassment." Per university policy, Geist directed Spofford to provide a written statement of what was described to her.[2] Spofford also approached her immediate supervisor, Dr. Michael Todd, about her conversation with M.K. Todd also requested a written statement from Spofford.[3] Todd also contacted Geist for advice, who advised he needed to report the matter to the EOD. Todd did so, and he filed an official complaint with the EOD on June 11.

         The EOD launched an investigation. Raw denied the allegations. In October, the EOD concluded there was no reasonable basis to believe Raw violated the University's sexual harassment policy. The EOD's written findings, which were provided to Raw, did not identify his accusers. The findings did identify the individuals who were interviewed during the investigation, which included Spofford but not M.K. The record indicates that in January 2011, Raw requested the EOD to provide him with identifying information for the reporting parties and alleged victims of sexual harassment. The EOD declined, noting policy does not require such information to be disclosed. The record indicates Raw continued to attempt to identify his accusers in the ensuing years.

         In August 2014, Raw submitted an "addendum" to be placed in his file to be associated with the EOD complaint and findings. In this document, Raw generally discussed his displeasure with the investigation and the University's failure to punish those who falsely accused him of sexual harassment. Raw indicated in his addendum that he suspected M.K. to be his accuser, which was "indirectly confirmed" by a "serendipitous comment" in the EOD findings. He also stated that, despite the reporting parties not being disclosed in the findings, identities of the reporting parties "were however easy for [him] to subsequently determine." He specifically identified Spofford and two other doctors as his "third party false accusers," noting their identities became apparent to him after reading the final EOD report and stating he "was easily able to associate some specific lies with Dr. Spofford whose name was mentioned in the report as a person interviewed" and he could "state with certainty which lies were statements of . . . Spofford." He also discussed the harm he has experienced as a result of the allegations, noting he has spent significant time and resources trying to clear his name, lost nearly two years of his professional life, and has changed permanently in many ways. He also indicated an intention to pursue legal action, noting: "The civil court is the venue for false allegations to be processed and justice to be found."

         Historically, Raw received three-year appointments to his positions. In 2015, the University gave Raw a final one-year appointment in his positions. Raw pursued a grievance. In July 2015, during the grievance process, Raw was made aware of the letter Spofford wrote to Geist in 2010. According to his affidavit in this litigation, but contrary to his 2014 addendum, Raw stated "this was the first time [Raw] knew that [] Spofford made allegations against [him] involving harassment."[4]Raw was unsuccessful in his grievance; he resigned from his employment with the University in December 2016.

         In May 2017, Raw filed a petition at law forwarding claims of libel per se and libel per quod against Spofford. Roughly a year later, Raw amended his petition to add claims of slander per se and slander per quod. In September 2018, Spofford moved for summary judgment. In her memorandum in support of her motion, Spofford asserted summary judgment was appropriate on three theories- (1) sovereign immunity, (2) the statute of limitations, and (3) qualified privilege. As to the statute of limitations, Spofford argued Raw was on inquiry notice of his claims in 2010 and his petition was therefore barred by the two-year statute of limitations. Raw resisted. As to the statute of limitations, Raw argued his claims did not accrue until 2015, when he was made privy to the statements actually ...

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