On January 5, 2021, Jim Nahas was fired by the Polk County Board of Supervisors from his position as the Polk County Human Resources Director. In response, Nahas filed suit against the Board and four of its members, “claiming libel per se, wrongful termination in violation of public policy, extortion, civil conspiracy, intentional infliction of emotional distress, and violations of Iowa Code chapters 21 and 22.”

The defendants filed a motion to dismiss Nahas’s claims under section 670.4A, a new provision of the Iowa Municipal Tort Claims Act (IMTCA) providing qualified immunity protection and imposing a heightened pleading requirement for certain claims against municipal defendants in civil tort claims. The district court denied the defendants’ motion, ruling the code section did not apply retrospectively to Nahas’s claims.

In an opinion filed on June 9, 2023, the Iowa Supreme Court in Nahas v. Polk County ruled Iowa Code section 670.4A did not apply retrospectively. Chief Justice Susan Christensen, writing for a unanimous Court, held the new qualified immunity protections offered by the section were not applicable in the case and only part of the heightened pleading requirements within the section were applicable.

In 2021, the Iowa Legislature “codified a substantive qualified immunity protection and introduced heightened pleading requirement for plaintiffs bringing IMTCA claims.” Iowa Code section 670.4A(1) protects municipal employees or officers from being “liable for monetary damages” if the legal right, claim, or privilege claimed to be violated was not “clearly established at the time of the alleged deprivation” or if the law was not clear enough for “reasonable employees” to know the conduct alleged to be a violation arises to a violation of law.

Chief Justice Christensen determined section 670.4A’s qualified immunity provision could not be applied retroactively. Because the legal consequences of the Board firing Nahas occurred before the effective date of section 670.4A, the Court determined that any application of the qualified-immunity defense to Nahas’s suit would be a retrospective application of that provision. The Court then determined that because the Iowa Legislature included no express language to indicate that the section should apply retroactively, the statute should be interpreted under the default rule that statutes are presumed to be prospective in their operation. Thus, the Court determined the qualified immunity defenses under section 670.4A were not applicable to Nahas’s claims.

Another provision within section 670.4A includes a heightened pleading standard for plaintiffs bringing civil actions against municipal corporations or their employees. The new standard requires that plaintiffs must: 1) “state with particularity the circumstances constituting the violation,” 2) “plead a plausible violation of the law,” and 3) “state . . . that the law was clearly established at the time of the alleged violation.” Failure to meet these requirements results in dismissal with prejudice.

Chief Justice Christensen then considered whether application of the new heightened pleading requirements contained in section 670.4A would also be retrospective. Chief Justice Christensen noted, “[t]he difficulty in this case arises because the three parts of the heightened pleading requirement relate to two different events.”

The Court held that the first two of these requirements, the particularity and plausibility requirements, applied to Nahas’s claims and were not retrospective. The drafting and the framing of the petition occurred after the effective date of the new law. The third requirement, however, is intertwined with the inapplicable qualified immunity provisions of the section. Thus, this additional requirement did not apply retrospectively to Nahas’s claims.

The Court then analyzed whether Nahas’s pleadings met the particularity and plausibility requirements imposed by the new statute. Because the Iowa Legislature used “established terms of art” from the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, Chief Justice Christensen held the terms carry the same definition that they have in federal court. Therefore, particularity requires the defendant to plead the “who, what, when, where, and how” of the alleged wrongful conduct, and requires more than vague or conclusory statements. Plausibility requires the pleadings contain sufficient factual material to allow the court to draw “reasonable inferences” that the defendant acted unlawfully.

Chief Justice Christensen found only two of the seven counts met the heightened pleading standards. Nahas’s claims for libel per se and civil liability survived the standards, while the claims for wrongful discharge in violation of public policy, extortion, intentional infliction of emotional distress, and alleged violations of Iowa Code chapters 21 and 22 did not survive the heightened requirements.

Finally, Chief Justice Christensen determined the constitutionality of section 670.4A would not be addressed by the Court because the issue was not adequately preserved for the Court’s review.

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