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Gay former Iowa state official awarded $1.5 million by jury in discrimination suit

USA TODAY logo USA TODAY 7/16/2019 Stephen Gruber-Miller

a person in a suit and tie: Chris Godfrey, a former Iowa Workers' Compensation Commissioner who is suing former Gov. Terry Branstad for discrimination, testifies at trial at the Jasper County Courthouse on Friday, June 21, 2019.

Chris Godfrey, a former Iowa Workers' Compensation Commissioner who is suing former Gov. Terry Branstad for discrimination, testifies at trial at the Jasper County Courthouse on Friday, June 21, 2019.
© Stephen Gruber-Miller / The Register

A jury has awarded a gay former state official $1.5 million in damages, finding that former Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad discriminated against him based on his sexual orientation.

The eight-person Polk County jury decided Monday that the state of Iowa and Branstad retaliated against former Iowa Workers' Compensation Commissioner Chris Godfrey. It found he and the state discriminated against Godfrey based on his sexual orientation, said Roxanne Conlin, one of Godfrey's attorneys.

"It feels a little bit unreal. I’m just so happy that I and my family have finally had justice in this case," Godfrey said Monday.

Godfrey, a Democrat, sued in 2012 alleging that Branstad, a Republican, pressured him to resign and cut his pay when Godfrey refused. 

"I have always treated everyone, gay or straight, with respect and dignity. That's the way I have always operated," Branstad testified during the trial.

The verdict wraps up the six-week trial, but it does not mark the end of the yearslong legal battle that began when Godfrey first sued seven years ago. On top of the $1.5 million in damages awarded to Godfrey for past and future emotional distress, a judge will determine additional fees to be paid to his attorneys. The state of Iowa is responsible for paying the damages and any additional fees.

"We are disappointed in the verdict and are consulting with our attorneys," said Pat Garrett, a spokesman for Gov. Kim Reynolds' office. Garrett did not immediately say whether the state will appeal.

Godfrey said he's overjoyed to be able to hold the people who discriminated against him accountable. Branstad and two of his top officials, legal counsel Brenna Findley and chief of staff Jeff Boeyink, were named as defendants in the lawsuit.

Branstad's attorneys did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the verdict.

'I'd like an apology' 

"Obviously I’d like an apology," Godfrey said. "I don’t know if that will be forthcoming or not. But I had a jury of fellow Iowans sit and listen to the evidence, and they made the determination that they discriminated and retaliated against me and violated my constitutional rights."

When Branstad took office in 2011 after previously serving as governor in the 1980s and 1990s, he sent a letter to all the department heads and division directors in state government asking them to resign so he could put his own team in place. He said it was the practice of newly elected governors to do so.

Godfrey, who was appointed to a six-year term, was one of three officials to refuse.

Months later, after again asking Godfrey to resign, Branstad then cut Godfrey's salary from $112,070 to $73,250 — the lowest allowed by law for the job.

In the years since, Branstad won reelection, and resigned the governorship when President Donald Trump appointed him to be the U.S. ambassador to China. Godfrey moved to Washington, D.C., where he is now the chief judge of the board that decides federal workers' compensation disputes.

Branstad testified at trial that he did not know Godfrey's sexual orientation until after Godfrey had threatened a lawsuit. Branstad said he made the decisions regarding Godfrey because he had heard concerns about the former commissioner and wanted someone on his team who supported his plan for Iowa.

Godfrey thanked his attorneys and the jury, whose members have spent six weeks of their summer hearing the case.

"That just means the world to me that they took their civic responsibility seriously and came out with a just verdict," Godfrey said.

The case itself was moved from Des Moines to Newton in the middle of trial after Conlin fell ill in the Polk County Courthouse, blaming air quality issues stemming from construction in the building. Her son was later arrested and charged with interference with official acts after trying to test the air quality in the courtroom without authorization and refusing police requests to leave.

"There were a lot of bumps in the road towards this verdict, not the least of which is I missed a week of the trial. But the jury got it right," Conlin said.

Stephen Gruber-Miller covers the Iowa Statehouse and politics for the Register. Reach him at sgrubermil@registermedia.com or 515-284-8169.

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This article originally appeared on Des Moines Register: Gay former Iowa state official awarded $1.5 million by jury in discrimination suit

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