Iowa Code 216C.11 Doesn't Grant Private Cause of Action, High Court Holds

Iowa case law summary by Attorney Richard Clem: Service Animals, Iowa Code 216C.11, Private cause of action.

Nicole Lara Shumate v. Drake University, a/k/a Drake University Law School. Service Animals, Iowa Code 216C.11, Private cause of action

Iowa Code 216C.11 allows persons with disabilities to be accompanied by service animals. The statute also grants the same right to a person training a service animal. The statute provides that a violation is a simple misdemeanor, but does not specify any private right to sue.

Nicole Shumate is not disabled, but is a service dog trainer. She was the founder of Paws and Effect, Iowa's first service dog training nonprofit corporation. In 2006, she enrolled in law school at Drake University and graduated in 2009. In 2009, she took one of the dogs she was training to class with her. She also took it to a cultural event at a local church. On both occasions, she alleged that she was told that the dog was not allowed. Shumate sued the university in Iowa District Court in Polk County, and the case was heard by Judge Eliza J. Ovrom.

The university emphatically denied that it had ever excluded Shumate because of the service dog. But it moved to dismiss the case on the grounds that the statute did not allow an individual to sue for any violation. Instead, it argued that the statute merely specified that excluding the animal was a misdemeanor punishable as a criminal offense.

In determining whether the plaintiff had the right to sue, Judge Ovrom considered the Iowa Supreme Court's ruling in Seeman v. Liberty Mutual Insurance Co., 322 N.W.2d 35 (Iowa 1982). She concluded that the statute did not give a private right to sue. Even though the plaintiff was in the class protected by the statute, there was no indication that the legislature had intended to create a private cause of action. Furthermore, she concluded that allowing such an action would circumvent the jurisdiction of the Iowa Civil Rights Commission (ICRC). Therefore, she dismissed the case.

Shumate then appealed to the Iowa Court of Appeals, which reversed Judge Ovrom's ruling on November 6, 2013. The University then asked the Iowa Supreme Court to review the decision.

The Supreme Court first held that Seeman v. Liberty Mutual Insurance Co. should be reaffirmed. The case had been based upon the U.S. Supreme Court's ruling in Cort v. Ash, 422 U.S. 66 (1975). The Court held that it would continue to use this analysis.

In applying those factors, the Court agreed with the District Court. In particular, it looked at the misdemeanor penalty of the statute, and noted that "if the legislature wanted to recognize other statutory violations that would produce civil liability, it would have so indicated." It also agreed with the District Court that a contrary holding would interfere with the jurisdiction of the ICRC, which requires specific procedures be followed.

For these reasons, the Supreme Court vacated the Court of Appeals decision and affirmed the judgment of the District Court. Shumate was represented in the appeal by Urbandale attorney Felicia Bertin Rocha. The university was represented by Ahlers & Cooney, P.C., of Des Moines.

No. 12-0919 (Iowa May 9, 2014).

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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