UI CONTRACTOR DISPUTES

Jury orders University of Iowa to pay millions for football facility work

University cites errors in seeking new trial for contractor dispute

Defensive end Parker Hesse (40) and Noah Fant (87) run a play at an Iowa Hawkeyes football practice at the Indoor Practice Facility in Iowa City on Wednesday, March 28, 2018. (Rebecca F. Miller/The Gazette)
Defensive end Parker Hesse (40) and Noah Fant (87) run a play at an Iowa Hawkeyes football practice at the Indoor Practice Facility in Iowa City on Wednesday, March 28, 2018. (Rebecca F. Miller/The Gazette)

IOWA CITY — Another contractor has won millions in a spat with the University of Iowa over payment for campus construction, although UI representatives are fighting the jury’s award and the contractor’s efforts to compel payment.

A Johnson County jury sided Feb. 25 with A&P Samuels Group of Des Moines, which years ago accused the UI of breaching its contract for work on a football practice facility, and ordered the UI pay $2.6 million plus interest.

After correcting some of the charges, the award was trimmed to $2.3 million. Attorneys for A&P Samuels sought to obtain it swiftly, filing paperwork asking the Johnson County Sheriff’s Office to garnish bank accounts for the Board of Regents.

Board attorneys argued the deadline for fighting the verdict hadn’t passed and — regardless — the university is immune from such a measure since it is a state entity with property that serves a “vital public interest,” according to court documents.

Johnson County District Court Judge Paul Miller agreed last Thursday with the UI that it would have the money to make good on its debts “in the event it is unsuccessful in arguing its post-trial motions.”

“The court is mindful of the fact that this litigation has been ongoing for many years,” Miller wrote. “However, Iowa is entitled to make good faith arguments in post-trial motions, and the time for the filing of such motions has not yet passed.”

The lawsuit and the back-and-forth since echo recent drama that followed a dispute between contractors and the UI over its $360-plus million, 14-story Stead Family Children’s Hospital that opened in February 2017 after months of delays and thousands of design changes.

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An arbitration panel in February 2018 ordered the UI pay Modern Piping of Cedar Rapids about $21.5 million, most of it for work on the hospital but some for work on Hancher Auditorium.

Modern Piping attorneys similarly asked the sheriff to garnish UI bank accounts, even filing a motion suggesting authorities tap UI resources not “necessary and proper for carrying out its general purpose, such as Jackson Pollock’s Mural.” The painting is the UI Museum of Art’s most famous piece, donated in 1951 and appraised at $140 million.

But the judge in that case also supported halting execution of the award until after the UI exhausted its appeal options, even as interest continued to accrue.

The Iowa Court of Appeals in January sided with Modern Piping in one aspect of the case — that the arbitration panel was immune from legal action the UI took against it for agreeing to simultaneously consider Modern Piping’s disputes on both the hospital and Hancher Auditorium.

Still before the appellate court is the fundamental disagreement over merits of the award. A chief judge last week filed a notice the panel will not hear oral arguments and rule based on documents instead.

And then there’s the UI dispute with Merit Construction, which also sued over payment on the Children’s Hospital and also won an award in arbitration — this one, finalized Feb. 19, worth about $10 million.

Attorneys for Merit, also of Cedar Rapids, filed motions to confirm the award. A judge last week gave the UI until April 3 to respond.

As for the most recent award to A&P Samuels related to work on the first phase of Iowa’s 102,000-square-foot, $55 million Indoor Practice Facility — which opened in 2012 — the UI on Friday fought the order by requesting a new trial, citing court errors during the first one.

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The university, according to its request, accused the court of failing to admit an exhibit the UI found “clearly relevant” and of improperly instructing jurors. It also, among other things, accused A&P Samuels of prejudicing jurors by telling them the regents drove it out of business and then stating during closing arguments that it’s a “viable business.”

The UI argued the jury was influenced “by passion and prejudice,” as evidenced by a jury question about legal fees.

“No claim was made for attorney fees, and the question clearly indicates an intent to punish Iowa,” according to the request for a new trial. “The court acknowledged the juror question made little sense.”

A judge has not issued an order following the request for a new trial. UI officials didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment Tuesday from The Gazette.

In a statement, the contractor noted its battle over unpaid work on the practice facility has lasted over six years.

l Comments: (319) 339-3158; vanessa.miller@thegazette.com

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