The Iowa Supreme Court is responsible for supervising and regulating trial and appellate courts across the state. As the COVID-19 pandemic descended upon the state in early 2020, the Supreme Court was forced to issue emergency orders to protect the public and court staff while keeping the state’s court system functioning. Ultimately, between March 12, 2020 and the end of 2021, the Supreme Court issued over thirty such “supervisory orders,” including five emergency orders within a six-day span between March 12 and March 17, 2020.
The Supreme Court’s supervisory orders had to balance the Governor’s public health proclamations, the dynamic ebb and flow of the virus’s spread in local communities, rapidly evolving understandings of COVID-19 epidemiology and best practices for prevention, and the need to ensure timely access to the justice system—most notably for criminal defendants awaiting trial. The supervisory orders governed everything from the timing of trials—many were postponed—to rules for remote proceedings, procedures for social distancing in court, and even requirements for “wet” signatures and notarized documents.
Certain COVID-19 supervisory orders—issued on April 2, May 8, and May 22, 2020—tolled statutes of limitations and similar deadlines for 76 days, beginning retroactively on March 18, 2020. This tolling applied to any potential plaintiff whose claim accrued prior to June 1, 2020, where the applicable limitations period had not expired prior to March 18, 2020. The tolling was ultimately phased out for any limitations periods that expired on or after March 17, 2021.
Reed Dickey, a high school student from Nebraska, participated in a wrestling tournament held in Council Bluffs on December 7, 2018. Dickey and his parents claim that he suffered repeated head injuries during a match, and on December 6, 2019 he sued a local hospital system who provided an athletic trainer for the tournament as well as the referee supervising the match. Dickey alleged that the trainer and referee were negligent in failing to remove Dickey from the match after he exhibited signs of brain injury, resulting in further brain injuries from subsequent blows to the head.
Prior to hearings on the defendants’ motions for summary judgment, Dickey voluntarily dismissed his claims against both defendants. Then, on December 11, 2020, Dickey filed a new lawsuit against the same defendants, adding additional defendants including the high school that hosted the tournament.
The applicable statute of limitations for Dickey’s lawsuit was two years. This meant that his December 11, 2020 filing was untimely and would be barred under normal circumstances. However, Dickey’s second lawsuit was timely in light of the Supreme Court’s supervisory order tolling all statutes of limitations. The defendants, however, argued that the Supreme Court’s supervisory order was unconstitutional—an impermissible abridgement by the judicial branch upon the Iowa Legislature’s authority to grant (and limit) civil causes of action.
Perhaps surprisingly, the Iowa District Court for Pottawattamie County agreed. District Judge Michael Hooper, ruling on a motion to dismiss, found that the Supreme Court’s supervisory order tolling statutes of limitations infringed upon the Iowa Legislature’s authority to limit the time for filing lawsuits. Where the legislature has not acted, the District Court reasoned, the judicial branch may regulate rules governing the court system—which necessarily includes rules that, if not followed, will extinguish a litigant’s substantive rights. However, the Legislature had specifically acted by codifying specific statutes of limitations—which, as the term implies, are inherently creations of statutory law. The District Court therefore found that the Iowa Supreme Court lacked the constitutional authority to alter statutes of limitations set by the Legislature. The fact that there was a legitimate emergency—the COVID-19 pandemic—did not alter this conclusion, as the Legislature had the power to convene to extend the deadlines but did not.
Even more surprisingly, when the District Court’s ruling went up to the Iowa Supreme Court on appeal, the Court could not muster a majority of justices to endorse the Court’s prior orders and reverse the District Court’s legal determination. In a divided 3-3 ruling, with Justice McDermott not participating, the Supreme Court was forced to declare the District Court’s ruling affirmed by operation of law. Justices McDonald, Oxley, and May voted to affirm the District Court’s ruling on the statute of limitations issue. Chief Justice Christensen—the author of the contested supervisory orders—along with Justices Waterman and Mansfield, would have reversed the District Court and held the supervisory orders to be constitutional. The Court’s ruling comprised two sentences; no justice wrote a separate opinion explaining their reasoning.
What does this mean? The Supreme Court’s divided ruling has no precedential effect under Iowa law, and the District Court’s conclusions do not bind other trial and appellate courts. It is not immediately apparent to this author as to the reason Justice McDermott did not take part in the disposition of this appeal, and he may provide the decisive vote in a future case. There were certainly many cases brought between April 2020 and March 2021 that were timely only as a result of the Supreme Court’s tolling order. So, this issue may come up before the Court again.