Iowa Supreme Court Examines Timeliness of Lawsuit Brought Regarding Abuse by a Clergyman

On June 4, 2018, the Iowa Supreme Court filed its amended ruling in the case of Bandstra v. Covenant Reform Church (Case No. 16-1078) 2018 WL 2455030 In that case, the Iowa Supreme Court dealt with a number of defenses raised by the church as it related to claims brought in connection with two adult church members who had been abused by a church pastor, and related to the subsequent response by the governing body of the church.
Among various issues confronted by the Court in that decision, it addressed whether the Religion Clauses of Iowa’s State Constitution and the United States Constitution, barred certain negligence claims that had been brought by the parishioners. The Court concluded some of the negligence claims were barred by those clauses, because the decisions that were made by the church that were being challenged, were inherently religious, doctrinal decisions which were constitutionally immune from serving as the basis for a negligence claim. The Court found by contrast that claims of negligent supervision by the church of the pastor, were claims common to any employer and were not uniquely religious decisions, and therefore the church would not be immune from that type of negligence claim.

The Court also examined the issue of the requirement for the Plaintiff to have brought a lawsuit within two years of when the parishioners knew they had been the victims of wrongful conduct. The Court examined how victims of abuse may know of the underlying conduct, but may not be aware of its wrongful nature, such that the two-year limitation period does not begin to run until the plaintiff has knowledge of the wrongful nature of the conduct. Balanced against that, the Court also stressed that the knowledge of the wrongful conduct may arise either of actual knowledge, or where the plaintiff has enough information suggesting the conduct was wrongful, to put the plaintiff on inquiry notice such that they should look into it further to determine if they have been the victim of wrongful conduct.

The Court found that among the two parishioners involved, one had brought the claim more than two years after she was on at least inquiry notice of the wrongful conduct, and the other had brought suit just short of two years after being on such notice, such that her claim would survive. The Court therefore remanded the surviving claim to be returned to the district court to proceed to trial on the surviving claim.