IA Attorney's Fees: Whistleblower Statute

Iowa case law summary by Attorney Richard Clem: IA Attorney's Fees: Whistleblower Statute.

Dennis L. Smith v. Iowa State University of Science and Technology, State of Iowa. IA Attorney Fees

Dennis Smith, a technical writer employed by Iowa State University, sued after his position was eliminated. A jury awarded $500,000 in damages for intentional infliction of emotional distress, and $784,027 for damages under the Iowa Whistleblower statute, Iowa Code 70A.28.

In an earlier 2014 appeal, the Iowa Supreme Court affirmed the emotional distress award, but reversed most (but not all) of the whistleblower claim.

The case was remanded, and Smith sought most of his attorney fees, citing the provision of the whistleblower statute which authorized attorney fees in successful whistleblower actions. The district court awarded virtually all of his claimed fees, even though some of the whistleblower claim proved unsuccessful. The trial court reasoned that all of the plaintiff's claims, both successful and unsuccessful, involved a common body of facts, and that it would be impractical for the court to determine which hour was spent pursuing which claim. The University then brought a second appeal, which was ultimately heard by the Iowa Supreme Court.

The Supreme Court agreed largely with the univesity's position, and noted that even though there was a common factual core, the ultimate issue was whether particular work was expended in pursuit of a claim for which fees can be recovered. It noted that some portions of the claimed fees were not in pursuit of the lawsuit as a whole.

However, the Supreme Court disagreed with the Court of Appeals' earlier decision that the plaintiff must submit detailed billing showing which part of the claim was being pursued. The Supreme Court noted that there was no precise rule or formula, and that the request for fees should not result in a second major litigation.

For these reasons, the Supreme Court remanded the case for a redetermination of attorney fees.

No. 15-0852 (Iowa Sep. 23, 2016).

Please see the original opinion for the court's exact language.


Richard P. Clem is an attorney and continuing legal education (CLE) provider in Minnesota. He has been in private practice in the Twin Cities for 25 years. He has a J.D., cum laude, from Hamline University School of Law in St. Paul and a B.A. in History from the University of Minnesota. His reported cases include: Asociacion Nacional de Pescadores a Pequena Escala o Artesanales de Colombia v. Dow Quimica de Colombia, 988 F.2d 559, rehearing denied, 5 F.3d 530 (5th Cir. 1993), cert. denied, 510 U.S. 1041 (1994); LaMott v. Apple Valley Health Care Center, 465 N.W.2d 585 (Minn. Ct. App. 1991); Abo el Ela v. State, 468 N.W.2d 580 (Minn. Ct. App. 1991).

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