By PETER HUSSMANN
The Iowa Supreme Court today rejected a former PCM Community School District secretary's appeal of a civil court ruling that she be required to repay the district's insurance company the money it paid to cover the amount she plead guilty to stealing, but said matter needs to be retried in order for the insurance company to prove how much she is required to pay.
La Cinda Van Haaften was charged with first degree theft and ongoing criminal conduct in December 2008 in connection with an investigation that allegedly found that $57,759.21 was received but not deposited into the activity account at PCM High School between May 2005 and May 2008, the time period she held the account manager position for the school district.
In July 2010, Van Haaften received a deferred judgment after entering an Alford plea to the first degree theft charge. She was placed on three years probation and given a fine and court costs totaling $1,479.35. The ongoing criminal conduct charge was dismissed.
In August 2010, Employer's Mutual Casualty Company filed a civil lawsuit against Van Haaften seeking to recover the money it paid to cover the school district's claim, a total of approximately $66,700 which included the cost of the audit that found the missing funds.
In June of last year, a Jasper County District Court Judge granted EMC insurance's motion for a summary judgment against Van Haaften requiring her to pay the full amount.
Van Haaften appealed the matter to the Supreme Court arguing that her deferred judgment at sentencing following her Alford plea on the criminal charge does not preclude her right to contest whether or not she was responsible for the missing money in the civil case.
An Alford plea is similar to a traditional guilty plea but says the defendant does not admit participation in the acts constituting the crime charged. A deferred judgment allows a defendant to have the criminal record expunged upon completion of the terms of the sentence.
EMC argued that Van Haaften's plea in criminal court precludes her from relitigating the elements of the case and precludes her from denying the theft or the amount of money in question.
The Supreme Court sided with EMC on the preclusion issue. The court ruled that her guilty plea has a preclusive effect and that the district court's finding of a factual basis for the charge underlying the plea is sufficient for issue preclusion. Further, the court found, a deferred judgment does not alter the court's finding a factual basis for the charge. EMC, the court said, could use Van Haaften's Alford plea to establish her civil liability.
However, the court ruled, Van Haaften's Alford plea limits the insurance company's right for subrogation. The court agreed with Van Haaften's appeal that EMC should be able to recover only the "essential element" of the offense; in this case $10,000, the minimum amount required to support a charge of first degree theft.
"We hold Van Haaften's plea to first-degree theft does not preclude her from contesting the amount by which her theft exceeds $10,000," the court ruled in remanding the issue back to Jasper County District Court where EMC will have to prove Van Haaften's liability for any amount in excess of that amount.
Van Haaften is now contending that she never misappropriated any funds from the PCM Community School District.