Court backlog creating more active University of Iowa lawsuits

Floods of 2008, budget cutbacks slowing legal system

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IOWA CITY — The number of pending litigation cases involving the University of Iowa and UI Hospitals and Clinics has climbed in the past few years, but one UI official says that’s due more to a backlogged court system than to more lawsuits being filed.

The UI was involved in 24 cases of pending litigation — either as a plaintiff or as a defendant — in the six-month period from July through December 2012, according to the most recent semiannual claims report to the state Board of Regents. That’s compared to 12 cases of pending litigation involving the UI from July to December 2009. Lawsuits involving UI Hospitals and Clinics totaled 24 in the December 2009 report, compared to 32 in the December 2012 report.

Some lawsuits are counted in numerous reporting periods, UI General Counsel Carroll Reasoner said, if the case is active each time the report is gathered. Numerous current UI suits have been working through the legal system for more than five years, she said. Of the 24 cases of active litigation involving the university in the recent report, seven were newly filed within the six-month period.

“The problem is, our courts are very backlogged” after cuts to the judicial system, Reasoner said. “So even though the number of suits that are coming in are about the same, the pool is getting bigger.”

A national study several years ago showed that Iowa’s Sixth Judicial District, which includes Cedar Rapids and Iowa City, was understaffed by two judges based on caseload, District Court Administrator Carroll Edmondson said. The 2008 flood also has contributed to a backlog specifically in that district, he said.

Complicated system

When looking at university litigation numbers, there also is enough fluctuation over time that it can be hard to draw conclusions about trends, Reasoner said. The UI was involved in 30 cases of pending litigation in the June 2007 report before those numbers dropped for several reports and then climbed back up. And some of the cases counted for the report involve small claims or may name the UI, but pose little financial liability, Reasoner said.

The UI did have more than double the number of active litigation claims in the most recent six-month period when compared to Iowa State University and the University of Northern Iowa, which had 10 and four, respectively. Officials attribute that to the larger size of the UI enterprise and its staff.

The Board of Regents pays the Iowa Attorney General’s Office to represent all regents entities in litigation. The board and the universities have staff attorneys, but they do not litigate in court.

Under the agreement for 2012-13, the Board of Regents pays $287,546 for those legal services, a fee that pays for a half-time legal secretary, quarter time for a supervising attorney and full-time for two attorneys who defend the regent institutions in employment and contract matters, said Attorney General Chief of Staff Eric Tabor. Fees paid by state agencies for legal services make up 60 percent of the office’s budget, he said.

A separate agreement with the regents, for $20,000, compensates the Attorney General’s office for defense of tort claims, which include medical malpractice cases against UI Hospitals and Clinics. That fee only partially covers the staff time spent in that area, Tabor said, with the remainder covered by the general fund.

The Board of Regents also pays miscellaneous expenses and travel costs to the Attorney General’s office associated with litigation. Last year, those additional costs totaled $32,372 for the universities and two special schools, and another $111,793 for UI Hospitals and Clinics.

Tracking the claims data helps point out trends or substantial variances from past reports, said Regent Bob Downer, an Iowa City attorney. The semiannual claims report goes to the regents every six months, with claims counted each June and December. Data is reported in several areas, including litigation, workers’ compensation and faculty and staff grievances.

There have been some high-profile lawsuits against the UI in the past year or two, Downer said, but he said recent reports and litigation numbers haven’t raised red flags for him.

“I’d like to see zeros across the board, but obviously that’s not going to happen,” he said. “For an institution this size and particularly one that is operating a large academic medical center, I have not regarded the overall numbers as being anything that was distressing.”

One trend noted in the most recent report was a rise in faculty grievances at UNI. There were six faculty or staff grievances reported in June 2011, compared to 23 in June 2012. The increase stems from program cuts and employee reductions last spring, University Counsel Tim McKenna said.

“The hope is that there’s more working together ... in all levels of the institution ... so we don’t end up with grievances, and things can be worked out before they would get to that level,” he said.

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