Gay former state official wins $1.5M in discrimination case against Branstad

Gov. Terry Branstad attends the 2017 GOP Iowa Legislative Breakfast.
Gov. Terry Branstad attends the 2017 GOP Iowa Legislative Breakfast.(KCRG)
Published: Jul. 15, 2019 at 5:17 PM CDT
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Former Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad and a staffer discriminated against the state's then-commissioner of workers' compensation in 2011 because he's gay, and the ex-official is entitled to $1.5 million for emotional distress, a jury said Monday.

Polk County jurors found that Chris Godfrey not only proved the discrimination occurred, but also showed he was retaliated against in the form of a pay cut after refusing to quit.

"The jury heard my sexual orientation was clearly a motivating factor," Godfrey said. "This is a win for me and it's a win for the entire gay community in Iowa. It shows that we have sexual orientation in the Civil Rights Act in Iowa for a reason and nobody, not even Terry Branstad, is above that law."

Branstad, a Republican who is now the U.S. ambassador to China, denied knowing Godfrey was gay when he asked for his resignation in 2011. Branstad returned from Beijing to Iowa for one day last month to testify.

On Monday, Branstad's attorney directed reporters to the office of the current governor, also a Republican, for comment.

"We are disappointed in the verdict and are consulting with our attorneys," Gov. Kim Reynolds' spokesman, Pat Garrett, said.

Godfrey, a Democrat, sued Branstad and several members of his staff and Cabinet in 2012. The lawsuit initially included Reynolds, but she was dropped from the case before it went to trial as were several others.

Remaining as defendants were the state, Branstad, former Branstad legal counsel Brenna Findley, and former Branstad chief of staff Jeff Boeyink.

Boeyink was the only remaining named defendant the jury did not hold responsible.

Branstad took the action against Godfrey shortly after he was elected to the first of his two most recent terms as governor. Godfrey, who couldn't be fired under a provision in Iowa law intending his six-year term to be insulated from politics, alleged Branstad pressured him to resign by cutting more than a third of his salary.

"Keep in mind the day after Branstad did this or it may have been the very day, I called the governor's office and I said, 'Restore his salary, apologize and it will be over,'" said Godfrey's attorney, Roxanne Conlin. "Instead it took eight years to get justice. Eight very long years."

The money being awarded to Godfrey will be paid by Iowa taxpayers.

For the discrimination and retaliation claims, the jury awarded Godfrey $400,000 for past emotional distress and $100,000 for future emotional damages against the state, Conlin said.

The jury also found Godfrey was denied constitutional due process rights by Branstad, Findley and the state. Jurors awarded him $800,000 for past emotional distress and $200,000 for future emotional distress for that failure.

The verdict in Godfrey's favor likely means state taxpayers also will be responsible for attorney fees for Branstad, which before the monthlong trial were well in excess of $1 million, and attorney fees for Godfrey.

The verdict and several rulings by the judge during trial could be appealed.

"A lot of people didn't want to believe the governor of the state of Iowa himself would discriminate," said Godfrey, now the chief judge of the board that decides federal workers' compensation disputes in Washington. "Being able to call my mom and let her know the jury heard all the evidence and sided with us, that means a lot."