Iowa Supreme Court reverses, making it harder to prosecute pig detentions

by Clark Kauffman

The Iowa Supreme Court on Thursday made it harder for landowners to sue for damages caused by large-scale animal confinements, saying it “decided wrongly” in a 2004 case on the Iowa Farm Right Act.

In a 4-3 decision, the court found its 2004 ruling on these issues, although reaffirmed in 2018, to be incorrect. The majority of justices said Iowa courts should now apply a simplified test to decide the constitutionality of a law that protects animal confinements from litigation.

The effect of Thursday’s ruling is that it will likely be more difficult for Iowans to sue confined animal feed operations, or CAFOs, for the negative impact they are having on owners. neighboring land.

The ongoing case involves an Iowa farmer, Gordon Garrison, who appealed a lower court’s dismissal of his lawsuit against New Fashion Pork and BWT Holdings, owners of a CAFO near his property. In his lawsuit, Garrison sued businesses for trespassing, creating a nuisance, and creating drainage problems on his land.

As part of his case, Garrison challenged the constitutionality of Iowa’s “Right to Farm Act,” which protects CAFOs from certain lawsuits brought by other landowners. The defendants fought successfully for summary judgment, which resulted in the prosecution being dismissed before the central issues could be presented to a judge or jury.

Garrison argued that the legal immunity provided by the Farm Right Act was unconstitutional under Iowa’s Imalienable Rights Clause.

The law in question explicitly states that its intent is to protect “animal agricultural producers” from the cost of defending “nuisance suits” and to promote “the expansion of animal agriculture” in Iowa by protecting CAFOs of legal costs.

The law goes on to state that the feeding of animals cannot be considered a public or private nuisance and cannot be considered to have interfered with other people’s use of their land unless certain criteria are met. .

Garrison’s attorney, Wallace Taylor of Cedar Rapids, said the court’s decision “will make it harder” for landowners to sue CAFOs in Iowa. “And it was difficult at first,” he added.

Lawsuits can still proceed if certain criteria — such as a CAFO’s pattern of non-compliance with state regulations — are met, Taylor said. But, he added, this is a high bar for complainants to cross. “It’s almost impossible to do because the industry wrote these regulations,” he said.

The 2004 decision that the court overturned on Thursday was an attempt by the court to consider the rights of neighboring landowners, Taylor said. The ruling then represented an effort by the court “to let the legislature protect the agricultural industry, at least to some degree, but not at the expense of unjustifiably harming someone else.” So they were trying to thread that needle, so to speak.

Court says it ‘badly decided’ previous case

The lawsuit’s origins date back to 1972, when Garrison purchased 300 acres of farmland in Emmet County. From the 1970s to 2018, he raised sheep on his property, first getting rid of animal manure by spreading it on his fields and then creating a manure compost heap.

In December 2015, New Fashion Pork began operating a CAFO — licensed to hold 4,400 to 8,800 pigs — upstream and adjacent to the Garrison property. The company’s subsidiary, BWT Holdings, purchased an additional parcel of land adjacent to Garrison’s property for manure disposal.

Garrison said companies spread manure on their fields when the land was saturated with water, causing runoff on his property. In December 2018, the companies applied manure to frozen ground, in violation of state regulations, and were fined $4,800.

Beginning in 2016, Garrison documented the days he could smell CAFO, which he estimated at 100 days of the year. He claimed the smell interfered with his sleep, his work outside and his ability to walk outside.

In December 2018, three years after CAFO began operations, Garrison filed a lawsuit against the two companies in federal court. In June 2020, after the federal case was dismissed due to lack of evidence, Garrison filed a lawsuit in state court.

In that case, he argued that he was entitled to damages because the smell of CAFO caused the devaluation of his property and his loss of use of the property. He also argued that the company’s claims for immunity under the Right to Farm Act were unconstitutional.

The district court ruled that the law was not unconstitutional insofar as it applied to Garrison because Garrison himself had “received some benefit” from the statute’s immunity from nuisance suit, and soon after, he dismissed the case.

When Garrison appealed, the corporate defendants argued that the Iowa Supreme Court should reverse its 2004 decision and declare that a simple rational basis test should be used to determine whether the right to agriculture was constitutional. The Iowa Pork Producers Association and the Iowa Farm Bureau Federation have joined in this effort.

Justices: Three-part test an ‘outlier’ among states

At stake was the 2004 Court’s finding that, to resolve the question of constitutionality, a three-part test had to be applied. This test required judges to determine whether plaintiffs had benefited from the immunity provisions of the law; whether they had suffered significant hardship; and whether they had resided on their property and made significant investments in the property before CAFO began operating.

This aspect of the 2004 case was “misdecided,” the Iowa Supreme Court ruled Thursday.

With Judge Thomas Waterman writing for the majority, the court noted that Garrison’s case “represents a recurring challenge to the constitutionality of the immunity provision in Iowa’s Farm Right legislation.” The kind of factual analysis required by the three-part test, he wrote, requires a trial on the merits of the case, or at least evidence hearings before a trial.

In rejecting that process, the court noted Thursday that no other court in any jurisdiction had adopted or used such a test, making Iowa an “outlier.”

The court also pointed out that all 50 states have right-to-farm laws that provide farmers with various forms of immunity from nuisance claims, and that Iowa is the only state to assert that such immunity may be considered unconstitutional in some cases.

“Constitutional challenges to nuisance immunities in right to farm laws (have) failed in all other courts,” the court said, adding that the three-part test was “created from scratch.” in 2004 and “creates unnecessary litigation”. and is difficult to manage.

The court said the legislature’s stated purpose of “promoting animal husbandry in this state furthers the interests of the public at large, and the immunity granted in this statute bears a reasonable relationship to that legislative purpose.” Therefore, even though individual producers are the direct beneficiaries of legal immunity, we believe that this provision falls within the police power of the state. »

The effect of its ruling, the court said, will be to eliminate the need to adjudicate such issues as deciding whether the plaintiffs benefited from the law they are challenging and whether the plaintiffs suffered significant hardship.

This will “reduce the cost of CAFO litigation by eliminating this duplicate evidence hearing and avoiding unnecessary constitutional rulings,” the court said.

In dissent, Appel raises the issue of “special interests”

The court noted that the Iowa Farm Right Act did not entirely eliminate the right of Iowans to seek damages for nuisances created by CAFOs.

“Neighboring property owners may be compensated for nuisance where the damage results from CAFO’s failure to comply with any federal or state law or regulation, or where CAFO interferes unreasonably and for prolonged periods with the use by the plaintiff of its property and the CAFO failed to use existing prudent and generally accepted management practices,” the court said.

Justice Edward Mansfield, in a concurring opinion, wrote that if the three-part test were applied “in all areas” to various legal disputes over the constitutionality of statutes, “it would significantly shift power from the legislature to the judiciary. Anyone can find a law or regulation that causes them difficulty without bringing them any particular benefit.

In a dissenting opinion, Judge Brent Appel wrote that “Iowa’s founders imposed strict restrictions on the conveyance of privileges and immunities, limits on the advancement of state government credit, and prohibitions on the state to pay corporate debt. Otherwise, special interests may dominate the political branches for their own benefit and not for the public interest…(T)he inalienable rights of Iowans simply cannot be trampled upon by majority action.

Appel argued that the central question raised in the Garrison case was whether legislators could “enact a law authorizing a landowner to appropriate or take for his benefit the interest in land of a neighboring landowner, without any compensation or benefit for the other owner…

“Or, more specifically, can the legislature give a ticket to a big corporation to come into a rural neighborhood, build a huge animal containment facility that creates a common law nuisance by a foul odor, without risk of being sued for damages by a long term. residential property owners whose right to enjoyment of their property has been impaired or destroyed? »

While lawmakers may have determined that promoting agriculture is in the best interests of all Iowans, Appel said, “are we telling existing homeowners that they’re obligated to in” take one for the team “because the private owners next door are emitting nuisance odors under a statutory immunity scheme?”

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