Iowa Supreme Court reverses itself, making it harder to sue hog confinements

By: - June 30, 2022 4:09 pm

The Iowa Supreme Court on Thursday made it more difficult for property owners to sue large-scale animal confinement operations. (Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images)

The Iowa Supreme Court on Thursday made it harder for landowners to sue for damages caused by large-scale animal confinements, saying it “wrongly decided” a 2004 case on Iowa’s right-to-farm law.

In a 4-3 decision, the court concluded that its 2004 ruling on such matters, though reaffirmed in 2018, was incorrect. The majority of justices said Iowa courts should now apply a simplified test in deciding the constitutionality of a law that shields animal confinements from litigation.

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

The case at hand involves an Iowa farmer, Gordon Garrison, who had 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 companies for trespassing, creation of a nuisance and the creation of drainage issues on his land.

As part of his case, Garrison challenged the constitutionality of Iowa’s “right-to-farm law,” which protects CAFOs from certain lawsuits brought by other landowners. The defendants successfully fought for a summary judgment, which resulted in dismissal of the lawsuit before the central issues could be presented to a judge or jury.

Garrison argued the legal immunity provided by the right-to-farm law was unconstitutional under Iowa’s inalienable rights clause.

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

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

Garrison’s lawyer, Wallace Taylor of Cedar Rapids, said the court’s ruling “will make it more difficult” for landowners to take CAFOs to court in Iowa. “And it was difficult to begin with,” he added.

Lawsuits can still proceed if certain criteria – such as a CAFO’s pattern of noncompliance with state regulations – are met, Taylor said. But, he added, that is a high bar for plaintiffs to clear. “It’s almost impossible to do because the industry wrote those regulations,” he said.

The 2004 ruling that the court rejected on Thursday was an attempt by the court to take into consideration the rights of neighboring landowners, Taylor said. The decision then represented an effort by the court “to let the legislature protect the ag industry, at least to a certain extent, but not at the expense of harming someone else unjustifiably. So they were trying to thread that needle, so to speak.”

Court says it ‘wrongly decided’ previous case  

The origins of the lawsuit 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, initially disposing of the animals’ manure by spreading it on his fields and then by creating a manure compost pile.

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

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

Beginning in 2016, Garrison documented the days in which could smell the CAFO’s odor, which he estimated at 100 days of the year. He claimed the odor interfered with his sleep, his work outdoors and his ability enjoy walks outside.

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

In that case, he argued he was entitled to damages because the CAFO’s odor led to the devaluation of his property and his loss of enjoyment of the property. He also argued the company’s claims of immunity under the right-to-farm law were unconstitutional.

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

When Garrison appealed, the defendant companies argued the Iowa Supreme Court should overrule its 2004 decision and hold that a simple rational-basis test should be used to determine whether the right-to-farm law was constitutional. The Iowa Pork Producers Association and Iowa Farm Bureau Federation joined in that effort.

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

At issue was the court’s 2004 finding that in order to resolve the question of constitutionality, a three-part test must be applied. This test required judges to determine whether the plaintiffs had received any benefit from the immunity provisions in the law; whether they had sustained any significant hardship; and whether they had resided on their property and made considerable investments in the property before the CAFO began operating.

That aspect of the 2004 case was “wrongly decided,” the Iowa Supreme Court said on Thursday.

With Justice 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 right-to-farm legislation.” The sort of fact-based analysis required by the three-part test, he wrote, requires a trial on the merits of the case, or at least evidentiary hearings prior to a trial.

In rejecting that process, the court noted on Thursday that no other court in any jurisdiction has 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 hold that such immunity can be considered unconstitutional in certain instances.

“Constitutional challenges to the nuisance immunities in right-to-farm statutes (have) failed in every other court,” the court stated, adding that the three-part test was “created out of whole cloth” in 2004 and “engenders unnecessary litigation and is difficult to administer.”

The court said the Legislature’s stated objective of “promoting animal agriculture in this state promotes the interests of the public generally, and the immunity granted in this statute bears a reasonable relationship to this legislative objective. Therefore, even though individual producers are the direct beneficiaries of the statutory immunity, we think this provision is within the police power of the state.”

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

This “will reduce the cost of CAFO litigation by eliminating this duplicative evidentiary hearing and avoiding unnecessary constitutional adjudication,” the court stated.

In dissent, Appel raises the issue of ‘special interests’

The court noted that Iowa’s right-to-farm law does not entirely eliminate the right of Iowans to seek damages for nuisances created by CAFOs.

“Neighboring property owners can recover for nuisance when the damage resulted from the CAFO’s failure to comply with a federal or state statute or regulation, or when the CAFO unreasonably, and for substantial periods of time, interferes with the plaintiff’s use of their property and the CAFO failed to use existing prudent, generally accepted management practices,” the court stated.

Justice Edward Mansfield, in a concurring opinion, wrote that if the three-part test was applied “across the board” to various legal disputes over the constitutionality of laws, “this would dramatically shift power from the legislative to the judicial branch. Everyone can find some law or regulation that works a hardship on them while providing no particular benefit to them.”

In a dissenting opinion, Justice Brent Appel wrote that the “Iowa founders put sharp restrictions on the passing out of privileges and immunities, limits on advancing the credit of the state government, and prohibitions on the state paying the debt of corporations. Otherwise, special interests could dominate the political branches for their own benefit and not 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 lawmakers can “enact a statute that authorizes a landowner to appropriate or take for the landowner’s benefit the property interest of a neighboring landowner, without any compensation or benefit to the other owner…

“Or, more particularly, can the legislature give a ticket to a large business to come to a rural neighborhood, build a huge animal confinement facility that creates a common law nuisance through fetid odor, without risk of being sued for damages by long-time residential property owners whose right to enjoyment of their property has been impaired or destroyed?”

While lawmakers may have determined that the promotion of agriculture is in the best interest of all Iowans, Appel said, “are we telling the existing property owners that they are required to ‘take one for the team’ as the private owners next door emit nuisance odors under a scheme of statutory immunity?”

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Clark Kauffman
Clark Kauffman

Deputy Editor Clark Kauffman has worked during the past 30 years as both an investigative reporter and editorial writer at two of Iowa’s largest newspapers, the Des Moines Register and the Quad-City Times. He has won numerous state and national awards for reporting and editorial writing.