DES MOINES, Iowa — A former state official who alleges he was pressured by then-Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad to resign because of his sexual orientation plans to take his discrimination lawsuit to trial next year in a case closely watched by government agencies that fear it could open the door to more litigation.
Chris Godfrey’s case is among the first to seek money damages from the state on allegations that a government official infringed on the rights of an individual. The case overcame a hurdle in June, when the Iowa Supreme Court allowed Godfrey to seek damages for alleged political retaliation. The ruling made it easier for Iowa residents to sue government officials who violate their rights.
Godfrey was appointed to a six-year term as the Iowa worker’s compensation commissioner in 2009 by Branstad’s predecessor, Democrat Gov. Chet Culver. The job entailed settling disputes between Iowa employers and workers seeking compensation for on-the-job injuries. Godfrey alleges Branstad, a Republican, began pushing him to resign shortly after being elected governor in 2010.
Branstad, now the U.S. ambassador of China, has denied Godfrey’s claims and said Godfrey was mismanaging the office.
Godfrey’s attorney initially filed lawsuits in both federal and state courts in 2012, but she dropped the federal case after the Iowa Supreme Court ruling provided a path for Godfrey to recover more money in state court. The court narrowly ruled that Godfrey could bring claims alleging that his property and liberty interests were “violated by the partisan motivation” of Branstad and his aides.
The court said it wasn’t taking a position on the merits of Godfrey’s claims. But it ruled that if state law didn’t provide an adequate remedy, damage claims could be brought under the Iowa Constitution.
“For me, this is the case of a lifetime,” said Godfrey’s attorney, Roxanne Conlin, who noted she had tried for 20 years to get the court to favorably rule in such a case.
In a filing last week, she narrowed the scope of Godfrey’s lawsuit to focus on five counts, saying she wanted a more focused case to present to jurors. The lawsuit now accuses the state of discrimination based on sexual orientation and retaliation, and of violating state constitutional guarantees of due process. The lawsuit also argued that Branstad, his former legal counsel and his former chief of staff tried to extort Godfrey by threatening in several meetings to cut his salary if he didn’t quit. Godfrey refused to resign and, in July 2011, Branstad slashed his pay.
Branstad has said business owners complained that Godfrey was running the commissioner’s office in a way that favored employees and was increasing workers’ compensation costs for them. Branstad argued the pay cut reflected Godfrey’s work performance and was unrelated to Godfrey’s sexual orientation. Godfrey was the only opening gay official in Branstad’s administration.
An attorney representing Branstad, his former staffers and the state noted that much of Godfrey’s case is now either dismissed by the courts or removed voluntarily.
“We are glad that between court rulings and voluntary dismissals, 14 of Mr. Godfrey’s claims have been dismissed, and we look forward to the successful defense of the remaining five claims,” said George LaMarca.
No trial date has been set, but a status conference is scheduled for Dec. 18.
Godfrey left the state job in 2014. He is now the chief judge of the board that decides federal workers’ compensation disputes in Washington.