Covering Iowa Law and Courts: A Guide for Journalists. civil lawsuits for money damages. dissolution of marriage (divorce)

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1 CHAPTER 3: Those cases that are not criminal prosecutions fall under the general heading of civil cases. There are five types of non-criminal cases most commonly seen in Iowa: civil lawsuits for money damages dissolution of marriage (divorce) probate, including guardianships and conservatorships, and estates following death involuntary commitment proceedings, both for mental impairment and substance abuse adoptions Dissolution of marriage proceedings are discussed in detail in a separate chapter of this guide (Chapter 6) because they are so different from other civil cases and have direct bearing on so many people's lives. The other areas of non-criminal law are discussed in turn in this chapter. Civil Lawsuits for Money Damages As discussed in Chapter 1 of this guide, which court will have jurisdiction over a civil lawsuit for money damages depends on the dollar value of the damages sought. If the claim is clearly computable with a value of less than $5,000.00, it is filed in small claims court. Small claims courts were originally designed to allow persons to seek monetary recovery without the need to hire a lawyer. The pleading forms, available at each county clerk's office and on line at the Supreme Court web site ( are basic and easy to understand. While lawyers may represent parties in small claims actions, it is common for individuals to appear pro se (without counsel). There is no right to a jury in a small claims case; the case is decided by the magistrate or district associate judge alone. If a claim is not a small claim, it is filed as a more formal, traditional-looking lawsuit in district court. The Supreme Court requires a uniform cover sheet to be attached to all civil petitions (except for small claims, probate, and commitment actions). The sheet is used for statistical purposes only, but quickly informs a reader of the type of case (e.g., debt collection, vehicle accident, fraud), the names of the parties, and the lawyer representing the plaintiff. The Iowa Rules of Civil Procedure prohibit a plaintiff from seeking a specific dollar amount of damages (except in small claims cases). Parties to a non-small claims civil lawsuit have the option of requesting a trial by jury. The conventional wisdom is that juries may be more sympathetic (and Copyright 2014 by Jeff Stein. All Rights Reserved. 3-1

2 therefore more generous) than a trial judge; however, some lawyers believe they are more successful trying complicated or detailed cases, or cases where their clients are not very sympathetic figures, before a judge rather than before a jury. The Iowa rules also provide for different jury standards from those in a criminal case. In a criminal case, the unanimous vote of all 12 jurors is needed for a verdict; however, in a civil trial, there are only eight jurors, and only seven of those eight must agree on a verdict for liability and monetary damages. If the jury has deliberated extensively but still cannot agree, a mistrial is declared and the case must be retried at a later time. (A mistrial is also known as a hung jury.) The trial process, including discovery, is essentially the same for civil cases as for criminal cases (as discussed in detail in Chapter 2 of this guide). The plaintiff (the party who filed the lawsuit) goes first in delivering opening and closing statements and presenting evidence, as does the State in a criminal case. It is the plaintiff's burden to prove any and all claims; however, the standard of proof is not as strict in civil cases as in criminal cases. The criminal standard is proof beyond a reasonable doubt; in a civil case, the standard is proof by a preponderance of the evidence. While the "reasonable doubt" standard means near certainty, the "preponderance" standard only requires the slightest tipping of the balance one way or the other; a 50.1 percent certainty, in other words. A plaintiff in a civil case may claim damages for a variety of wrongs committed against him/her. Compensatory damages are those specifically calculated to compensate the plaintiff for loss caused by the defendant. This can include reimbursement for medical bills, lost wages, pain and suffering, and emotional distress. Punitive damages are those designed to punish the defendant in the hopes that this type of behavior will not occur again in the future. However, the plaintiff does not always get all of the money awarded by the jury as punitive damages. Iowa Code 668A.1 provides that if the defendant s conduct was not directed specifically at the plaintiff, the plaintiff only gets 25 percent of the punitive damage amount awarded, after the payment of costs and fees. The remainder is paid by the defendant to a civil reparations trust fund administered by the state court administrator to help fund indigent civil litigation programs or insurance assistance programs. Before deliberations, the jury is ordered to make a distinction in its verdict between how much money (if any) is to be paid in compensatory damages and how much in punitive damages; however, the jury is not told by the judge, and therefore may not know, that not all of the punitive damage award goes to the plaintiff. Probate Probate is the general category for administering the person and/or property of an individual who cannot take care of those matters him/herself, either through death or disability. The property owned by a person in a probate matter is known as the estate. The estates of the deceased are what most people think of when they consider this category, but probate also includes guardianships and conservatorships, which concern the estates of living persons. Copyright 2014 by Jeff Stein. All Rights Reserved. 3-2

3 Guardianships and Conservatorships A guardianship is a judicial proceeding in which the court appoints an individual to be the guardian over a person, known as the ward, who can no longer take care of himself or herself. The guardian is responsible for taking care of the ward's health and welfare, including deciding where the ward lives and what medical or mental health care the ward needs. A conservatorship is a judicial proceeding in which the court appoints an individual to be the conservator over the finances and assets of a person (the ward) who can no longer take care of such matters himself or herself. The conservator is responsible for taking care of the ward's business and financial matters, including paying bills and investing funds. Quite often the petition presented to the court is actually a combination of both a guardianship and a conservatorship. Some states always combine the two automatically, but Iowa preserves them as separate and distinct proceedings. The individual(s) appointed by the court to watch over the ward's physical and financial needs are often required to post a bond to protect the ward's interests, and must file annual reports to the court to insure they are properly ministering to their duties. Guardians and conservators may charge a fee for their services, to be paid from the ward's funds; however, the guardian and conservator is often a family member who does not charge any fee. Estates Following Death Whether an individual who owns property at the time of death has a valid will or not, the disposition of the decedent's property comes through a probate estate. The court-approved party who ministers to this distribution of the decedent's property is known as the executor of the probate estate. If there is a will, the law allows the distribution of property to be made in the manner spelled out in the will. If the person died intestate, meaning there is no will, state law provides for the distribution of the property in specified portions to family members, depending on their legal relationship to the deceased. Most individuals are concerned with the amount of tax they must pay on inheritances. This is not a matter for the probate court, as those taxes are collected by the state revenue department. Most relatives do not pay state inheritance tax, thanks to a law in effect since Property passing to the surviving spouse, parents, grandparents, children (both biological and legally-adopted children), stepchildren, grandchildren, great-grandchildren, and other lineal descendants is exempt from inheritance tax. Life insurance proceeds paid to a named beneficiary directly are also not subject to state inheritance tax. Federal inheritance taxes (often called death taxes ) are assessed on estates worth more than $1,050,000, regardless of who receives an inheritance or distribution under the will. Involuntary Commitment Proceedings There are two types of involuntary commitment proceedings: those alleging that a person (called a ward in the legal action) is seriously mentally impaired, and those alleging that a person is a substance abuser as defined by statute. At times, both Copyright 2014 by Jeff Stein. All Rights Reserved. 3-3

4 petitions will be filed against a party at the same time. To initiate these proceedings, two individuals with personal knowledge of the proposed ward's actions must sign affidavits with the clerk of court. Those affidavits are submitted to either the county judicial hospitalization referee or a judge (including a magistrate or a district associate judge). If the allegations if unchallenged would support a finding that the proposed ward is a danger to him/herself or others, the judge or referee will sign an order requiring the ward to be picked up by the county sheriff and delivered to a locked hospital facility for evaluation by a court-appointed medical/psychiatric staff. The ward has the right to a formal hearing on the allegations in the petition within 72 hours of the time the ward is taken to the hospital. Regardless of income, a lawyer is appointed to represent the ward at all stages of the proceedings. In either proceeding, the referee or judge can determine one of four things: that the individual is not impaired or a substance abuser, and the proceedings are terminated; that further evaluation is needed before a decision is made; that an individual is impaired and requires out-patient treatment; or that an individual is impaired and requires in-patient treatment. Reports of the treating physicians are typically admitted at the hearing, along with a recommendation of the doctors regarding the ward's condition and prognosis. The original affiants also may testify. The ward can offer whatever evidence the ward wishes to dispute the allegations of impairment. In the event a ward is found to be impaired and detained in an in-patient facility, the law requires that regular reports be provided to the referee or judge to make sure that the ward is not held any longer than absolutely necessary. Adoptions Adoptions are contained in Chapter 600 of the Iowa Code. The most common type of adoption is a step-parent adoption, where a natural parent has died or where the natural parent consents to the adoption of the child by the other natural parent's new spouse. But third party adoptions (where the adoptive parents have no blood or marital ties to the child) are also common. There is a minimum 30-day waiting period from the time of filing of a petition until the adoption is granted, even if all sides consent to the adoption. The petition is typically filed by the party wishing to adopt the child. Affidavits must be on file showing that all of the natural parents then living consent to the adoption, or else the parental rights of the party who resists the adoption must be judicially terminated before the adoption can proceed. If one (or both) of the natural parents is absent or has abandoned the child, the adoption petition will seek to terminate the absent parent's parental rights to allow the adoption to proceed. A natural parent can object to the attempt to terminate her/his parental rights at a hearing. If the father is unknown, the law requires that notice of the termination of parental rights and adoption petition must be published in a local newspaper. (That publication process is explained in greater detail below.) A parent who initially gives consent can withdraw that consent at any time prior to the final adoption decree being granted. Copyright 2014 by Jeff Stein. All Rights Reserved. 3-4

5 If the party seeking to adopt the child shows an established, loving relationship with the child and has the ability to care for the needs of the child, and the natural parents consent, the court will approve the adoption as being in the best interests of the child. Other Civil Law Points of Interest A defendant must receive notice of the petition filed in any new civil action. This notice must be personally served on each defendant. If the whereabouts of the defendant are not known, notice of the petition may be published in a newspaper of general circulation in the county where the lawsuit was filed. The notice must appear in the newspaper for three consecutive weeks. The Iowa Rules of Civil Procedure also require that a document called an original notice accompany the petition, informing the defendant that s/he has 20 days from the date of service (60 days for some out-of-state defendants) to respond to the petition. Failure to timely respond can result in the plaintiff automatically winning by default. The Iowa Supreme Court has established a series of time standards, which are guidelines to suggest how long it should take from the time a case is filed until it comes to trial. For example, the suggested time standard for a felony criminal case, from the time of arrest to the time of trial, is six months, while the time standard for a simple misdemeanor is four months. In civil cases where a jury trial is requested, the time standards suggest that the trial be held no later than 18 months from the time the petition is filed; for a civil case without a jury, the time standard is 12 months. (Given funding constraints and the large number of case filings, it has been a challenge for the courts to consistently adhere to those guidelines.) The right of a defendant to seek a new trial in a criminal case was discussed in Chapter 2. In a civil case, either party who does not agree with a verdict or ruling may seek a new trial if error occurred that "materially affected substantial rights" of the aggrieved party. Grounds to support a motion for new trial include any irregularity in court proceedings that prevented a fair trial, misconduct by a juror or the opposing party, a granting of excessive or inadequate damages that was influenced by passion or prejudice, newly discovered evidence, or that the verdict was generally not supported by the evidence. And of course, a party that does not agree with the result of a case may appeal the decision, as discussed at length in the next chapter of this guide. Copyright 2014 by Jeff Stein. All Rights Reserved. 3-5

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