Des Moines Board of Adjustment substantially complied with the law in granting setback exception

by Eric Christianson

Graziano v.Des Moines Board of Adjustment
(Iowa Court of Appeals, November 8, 2017)

Cecelia Kent purchased a previously undeveloped lot in Des Moines with the intent of building a single family home. However the winding road and a thirty-foot easement for a public storm sewer running diagonally across the back of the lot complicated Kent’s plans. On November 14, 2015, Kent appealed to the Des Moines Zoning Board of Adjustment for an exception to the district’s fifty-foot front yard setback, allowing her to build a house with a front yard setback of just thirty feet. She also asked the board for a variance to the setback required for a parking lot and an exception to the side yard setback.

The board denied the variance and the side yard set back, but voted to approve the exception to the front yard setback.

Kent’s neighbor Craig Graziano challenged the board’s action on two grounds:

(1) the board failed to make required written findings
(2) substantial evidence does not support the grant of an exception.

As quasi-judicial bodies, boards of adjustment are required to make written findings of all facts present. The intent of these is “to enable a reviewing court to determine with reasonable certainty the factual basis and legal principles upon which the board acted.” In this case, the court of appeals determined that the staff report as well as the minutes of the discussion during the meeting was sufficient to allow the court to determine the factual basis and legal principles upon which the board acted.

 The criteria that the board is required to consider in granting an exception is detailed in Des Moines City Code:

1. (a) Such exception does not exceed [fifty] percent of the particular limitation or number in question . . .
2. The exception relates entirely to a use classified by applicable district regulations as either a principal permitted use, a permitted accessory use, or a permitted sign, or to off-street parking or loading areas accessory to such a permitted use;
3. The exception is reasonably necessary due to practical difficulties related to the land in question;
4. Such practical difficulties cannot be overcome by any feasible alternative means other than an exception; and
5. The exception is in harmony with the essential character of the neighborhood of the land in question.

Graziano challenged that the board had failed to show to show that there was no “feasible alternative” to granting the exemption  and that the reduced setback would be “in harmony with the essential character of the neighborhood.”

With regards to feasible alternatives, the meeting minutes show that the board of adjustment did discuss the possibility of moving the easement as well as to whether a smaller reduction to the setback might be adequate. Although this reasoning was not included in the final written findings, the court found this to be adequate to support the fact that the board “substantially complied” with the mandate to consider feasible alternatives.

Graziano also challenged that by not including expert testimony on the effect that this exemption may have on neighboring property values, the board failed to show that the setback would be “in harmony with the essential character of the neighborhood.” The court found that expert testimony is not required citing an earlier case which found:

[T]he board may rely upon “commonsense inferences from evidence relating to other issues, such as use and enjoyment, crime, safety welfare, and aesthetics, to make a judgment as to whether the proposed use would substantially diminish or impair property values in the area.”

The court affirmed the district court’s ruling upholding the exception granted to Kent.

Iowa Supreme Court Rules that Cities May Take Possession of Abandoned Properties

Cby Eric Christianson

Eagle Grove v. Cahalan Investments
(Iowa Supreme Court, December 1, 2017)

Cahalan Investments purchased two residential properties in the City of Eagle Grove, one in 2002 and the other in 2011. Both properties have remained unoccupied and in deteriorating condition since their purchase. The properties were the subject of multiple complaints by neighbors and were found to be unfit for human occupancy.  In 2014 the city began an effort to clean up a number of nuisance properties, these properties were among those targeted. The city sent several letters to Cahalan advising them that they were in violation of the city’s nuisance ordinance. Cahalan made no effort to abate the nuisance and would later testify that they had no intention of making either property habitable in the foreseeable future

Iowa Code section 657A.10A allows cities to petition a district court to transfer ownership of abandoned properties to the city. The code details the following criteria that a court is to use when determining if a property has been abandoned.

a. Whether any property taxes or special assessments on the property were delinquent at the time the petition was filed.
b. Whether any utilities are currently being provided to the property.
c. Whether the building is unoccupied by the owner or lessees or licensees of the owner.
d. Whether the building meets the city’s housing code for being fit for human habitation, occupancy, or use.
e. Whether the building is exposed to the elements such that deterioration of the building is occurring.
f. Whether the building is boarded up.
g. Past efforts to rehabilitate the building and grounds.
h. The presence of vermin, accumulation of debris, and uncut vegetation.
i. The effort expended by the petitioning city to maintain the building and grounds.
j. Past and current compliance with orders of the local housing official.
k. Any other evidence the court deems relevant.

The code then states that if the court finds the property is abandoned, “the court shall enter judgment awarding title to the city.” In this case, the district court found that Cahalan’s properties were indeed abandoned under the definition set forth in the statute. In fact Cahalan Investments does not dispute this finding; however, Cahalan argued that awarding ownership of these properties to the city without compensation violated the takings clause of the US Constitution. In this case, the district court found Cahalan Investment’s argument convincing and did not award title to the City of Eagle Grove.

The City of Eagle Grove appealed the district court’s decision to the Iowa Supreme Court.

The Iowa Supreme Court revisited the question of whether awarding ownership to a city under Iowa Code section 657A.10 is constitutional.

Proving that a section of state code is unconstitutional is not easy. The court quotes an earlier decision stating that, “statutes are cloaked with a presumption of constitutionality. The challenger bears a heavy burden, because it must prove the unconstitutionality beyond a reasonable doubt.”

Takings jurisprudence is based primarily on the takings clause of the Fifth Amendment which states that, “private property [shall not] be taken for public use, without just compensation.” To determine if a governmental action has violated the takings clause, the court uses the following framework:

(1) Is there a constitutionally protected private property interest at stake? (2) Has this private property interest been “taken” by the government for public use? and (3) If the protected property interest has been taken, has just compensation been paid to the owner?

In this case, Cahalan’s case fails on the first question. The court cites an earlier ruling which states that “the State has the power to condition the permanent retention of [those] property right[s] on the performance of reasonable conditions that indicate a present intention to retain the interest[s].” Ownership of property comes with many rights, but is not absolute. Here the court is saying that in Iowa a property owner’s rights do not include allowing properties to remain abandoned. By doing so here, Cahalan has forfeited their rights.

By allowing the properties to persist in a condition unfit for human habitation, allowing the properties to remain vacant, and failing to make timely and reasonable efforts to remedy the public nuisances created by the properties after notification of the problems, Cahalan did not comply with the section 657A.10A(3) criteria. Thus it failed to “indicate a present intention to retain the interest.” See id. at 526, 102 S. Ct. at 790. We conclude the district court erred in concluding Cahalan holds a constitutionally protected private property interest in the abandoned properties for which just compensation is owed.

Finding that Cahalan Investment’s stake in the properties was not a constitutionally protected right is enough to decide the case, but for completeness the court did examine the second question as well.

Assuming that Cahalan did have a constitutionally protected private property right the court still found that takings jurisprudence supports the city’s actions. A taking occurs when the government denies a property owner “all economically beneficial or productive use” of property. In this case there is no dispute that Cahalan Investments has been deprived of all use of these two properties. Generally when that occurs, the government is required to pay just compensation. However, there is a public nuisance exception in takings jurisprudence. The state has the “power to abate nuisances that affect the public generally, or otherwise,” and this action, “is not a constitutional taking for which compensation is required.”

The court also examined whether the fact that Cahalan Investments purchased these properties before the enactment of this particular section of 657A would prevent it from being applied in this case. Here the court found that the state’s existing legislation as well as the principles of nuisance law already in place at the time of purchase were sufficient to hold that Cahalan never possessed the right to maintain properties in an abandoned state.

The Iowa Supreme Court reversed the finding of the district court that the city’s exercise of 657A constituted an unconstitutional taking and remanded the case back to district court.

Empirical evidence may not be necessary for time, place, and manner regulations on signage

by Eric Christianson

Luce v. Town of Campbell
(Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals. September 22, 2017)

Interstate 90 runs through the town of Campbell, Wisconsin where it is crossed by two streets and a pedestrian overpass.

Gregory Luce and Nicholas Newman, two members of the local Tea Party, chose to use the pedestrian overpass to promote their views. With their group, they held American flags along with banners and signs messages such as “HONK TO IMPEACH OBAMA.” This led the Town’s legislature to enact an ordinance forbidding all signs, flags, and banners (other than traffic-control information) on any of the three overpasses, or within 100 feet of the end of these structures.

Complicating this case is the fact that the local police chief, Tim Kelemen, and the Tea Party protesters escalated the conflict. The members of the Tea Party group posted videos and messages online. One video showed police removing a protestor for unfurling an American flag.

The police chief responded by posting the name and email address of one of the protestors on same-sex dating and pornography websites. Kelemen also posted comments on the local newspaper’s website accusing that protestor of failing to pay his property taxes and other debts and asserting that his car was about to be repossessed. When this behavior was revealed, Kelemen resigned his post as police chief and was prosecuted for “unlawful use of a computerized communication system.”

In this case the plaintiffs considered the actions of the police chief to have been retaliation by the city for their speech. However the court found that Kelemen’s vigilante actions were private in nature:

The court concluded that Kelemen was not engaged in state action when “messing with” Luce and that the First Amendment therefore did not apply (for it deals only with governmental conduct). Acting as a vigilante is not part of a police officer’s job. Kelemen did some of the dirty work while on duty and used an office computer for some posts. But he did not use official information or privileged access to information. All of the facts he gathered and disclosed about Luce, such as his physical and email addresses, were available to the general public. Anyone else could have done exactly what Kelemen did.

While Kelemen’s actions were not “state action” the court does say that his actions undermine his credibility as a witness stating the dangers presented by signage on the overpass. While one photograph of a car, which had stopped to take a picture, was shared at trial, without Kelemen’s testimony there was no other evidence to prove this law advances a “significant governmental interest.”

However, the court asserts that case law shows that reasonable, content-neutral, time, place, and manner restrictions on speech have not required empirical evidence to pass constitutional muster. As long as the legislatures assertions are reasonable, “the Court “hesitate[s] to disagree with the accumulated, common-sense judgments of local lawmakers.” Novel signs do attract more attention than fixed billboards. The City Council does not need a specific double-blind study to support that fact in this case.

A regulation of the sort the Town has adopted rests on a belief that overhead signs and banners will cause at least some drivers to slow down in order to read what the banners say, and perhaps to react to them (say, by blowing the car’s horn in response to “HONK TO IMPEACH OBAMA”). Stopping to take a picture is just an extreme version of slowing down. Reading an overhead banner requires some of each driver’s attention, and diverting attention—whether to banners or to cell phones and texting—increases the risk of accidents. This effect is well established for cell phones and texting and is the basis for legislation by many jurisdictions, uncontested in court as far as we are aware, though talking and texting are speech.

It does not take a double-blind empirical study, or a linear regression analysis, to know that the presence of overhead signs and banners is bound to cause some drivers to slow down in order to read the sign before passing it. When one car slows suddenly, another may hit it unless the drivers of the following cars are alert—and, alas, not all drivers are alert all the time

The court did remand a portion of the law which bans all signage within 100 feet of the overpasses including those which would not be visible to drivers on the interstate.

Township trustees may determine what constitutes a “legal fence”

by Eric Christianson

Hopkins vs. Dickey
Iowa Court of Appeals, October 25, 2017

This dispute concerns the repair and maintenance of a 600 foot fence separating the properties of Matthew Hopkins and Robert Dickey. Iowa’s Fence Code 359.17(1) uses the “right hand rule” to determine who is responsible for the maintenance of a fence. Essentially, if the two property owners were to stand facing one another at the center of their adjoining property line, each is responsible for the fence to his/her right unless an alternate agreement is made in writing. In this case, Dickey is responsible for the west 300 feet and Hopkins is responsible for the east 300 feet.

In 2010 after several instances of cattle escaping, Dickey informed Hopkins that he needed to repair that portion of the fence. Hopkins declined to do so, stating “that’s not what the law requires” and he already had “too many projects.” Dickey filed a complaint with the local township trustees, who are responsible for managing fence disputes. The trustees ordered Hopkins to “erect and maintain the East 300 feet of the partition fence” and that such be a “lawful fence” having “five barb wires attached to posts not more than 10 feet apart.”

Hopkins appealed the trustees’ decision to district court. The district court upheld the trustees’ decision, finding the application of the right-hand rule was both “a customary practice” and “fair and equitable.” Hopkins then appealed to the Iowa Court of Appeals alleging:

  1. A verbal agreement with the previous landowner excused Hopkins from all responsibility to maintain the fence.
  2. The fact that the decision only applied to him violated case law that states that Iowa’s fence law exists “to equalize the partition fence burden.”
  3. The specifications that he was ordered to build the fence to exceeded those required by law.

The court of appeals affirmed the district court on all three points.

The alleged prior verbal agreement is hearsay and therefore inadmissible. Further, even if a prior agreement existed, it should be legally recorded according to Iowa Code 359A.13 to have any authority.

The fact that the court order only applies to Hopkins does not violate the principle of equalizing the burden as, at the time of trial, Dickey had recently rebuilt half of the partition fence. The court stated that it is undisputed that the portion of the fence built by Dickey was “in good repair” at the time of the fence viewing. Therefore it was not necessary to order Dickey to maintain the fence.

Finally, the appeals court found that the trustees have some leeway in deciding what constitutes a legal fence:

The term “legal fence” as defined in the statute is not a prescription, however, for how every partition fence must be constructed or what fence viewers must require, but sets forth a minimum standard for a “legal fence.” […] In this case, the fence viewers and the court determined Hopkins was responsible for a portion of existing fence that was in such disrepair it did not constitute a “legal fence.” The district court ordered Hopkins to construct a new fence in keeping with the style and character of the existing fence and in keeping with the fence constructed by Dickey and approved by the fence viewers.

Court of Appeals finds $25,000 award reasonable for sewer easement

by Eric Christianson

City of North Liberty v. Gary Weinman
(Iowa Court of Appeals, April 5, 2017)

In 2014 North Liberty was in the process of developing what would become Iowa City Liberty High School to alleviate overcrowding in the Iowa City School District. However, the site selected did not have access to sanitary sewer. To service the area, the City of North Liberty explored several options before selecting its ultimate path in 2014. This path crosses the private property of 13 individuals. The city was able to secure temporary easements (for construction) and permanent easements (for ongoing maintenance) from 12 of the 13. The final holdout was Dr. Gary Weinman who first sought through a pair of lawsuits to force the city to stop construction and reconsider other routes. Those suits failed.

Easements are always considered takings and therefore Weinman was entitled to just compensation under the Fifth Amendment. A compensation commission decided that Weinman was entitled to $75,000. This included a temporary easement for construction (1.1 acres for four months) and a permanent easement (.75 acres). The city appealed claiming that amount was excessive. Weinman requested a jury trial so the matter was tried de novo to the jury. The jury set the compensation amount at $25,000 relying largely on the testimony of an expert assessor brought by the city.

Weinman appealed this decision to the Iowa Court of Appeals. The Court of Appeals does not  generally reverse compensation awards provided that they are not “wholly unfair or unreasonable.” In this case, because the jury’s decision was reasonable based on the evidence, the award of $25,000 was affirmed.

 

City Council member’s removal from office violated his procedural due process protections

by Gary Taylor

Burke v. City Council of City of Lansing
Iowa Court of Appeals, February 22, 2017

Members of the Lansing City Council voted to remove city council member William Burke from office for claimed violations of our open meetings law (OML).  On one occasion the council issued an agenda for a closed session “to discuss strategy in matters that are presently in litigation or where litigation is imminent.”  After the agenda was issued, the city clerk requested an opinion from the Lansing city attorney as to whether the two topics she understood to be up for discussion actually qualified for closed session under the OML.  The city attorney opined that the topics did not, in fact, qualify for closed session.  The clerk forwarded the memo to the city council members, including Burke.  Burke notified the clerk that he disagreed with the clerk’s characterization of the purposes of the meeting as the clerk had reported them to the city attorney.  When the scheduled meeting was held the council voted 2-1 to go into closed session, with Burke being one of the two council members to vote in favor.  Later, the council held another special meeting on an unrelated matter.  Twenty-four-hour notice was not given.

Tensions between the council and residents resulted in an investigation by the Allamakee County attorney into the council’s actions.  The county attorney filed a petition alleging the two meetings violated the OML.  The attorney retained to represent the council and its members concluded the county attorney had “made some legitimate allegations,” and predicted fines, costs and attorney’s fees will likely be assessed against each council member.  The attorney set forth a potential settlement strategy she had discussed with the county attorney that would require Burke to resign from the council in exchange for dismissal of the lawsuit.  After a closed session of the council which Burke did not attend, the mayor petitioned the council to remove Burke from office for “willful misconduct and maladministration in office” in his handling of several matters relating to OML which resulted in litigation against the city and members of the council.  After a special meeting, the council voted 4-0 to remove Burke from office (Burke abstained from the vote).  Thereafter Burke challenged his removal in district court, raising several issues with the council’s proceedings.  The district court denied Burke’s petition, and Burke appealed.  The sole issue considered by the Court of Appeals was procedural due process.

Burke argued that the removal proceeding was fundamentally unfair because each member of the council who voted on his removal had a pecuniary conflict of interest in deciding his fate, and the “council itself generated the factual record necessary to sustain its decision, which perpetuates its conflict of interest.”  The Court of Appeals determined that Burke did not receive a “fair trial in a fair tribunal” as required by the Constitution.  The council members understood that they would eliminate their own financial exposure for possible violations of the OML if they removed Burke.  Furthermore, the council combined the prosecutorial function (by authorizing initiation of the removal process) with the adjudicative function (by presenting their own witness testimony to document their own personal knowledge of the grounds for removal).

Because the removal proceeding violated Burke’s right to procedural due process, the Court of Appeals sided with Burke and reversed the order of the district court.

 

 

Certification of class action appropriate in suit for nuisance, trespass and negligence against grain processor

by Gary Taylor

Freeman, et al., v. Grain Processing Corp.
Iowa Supreme Court, May 12, 2017

Residents who live near Grain Processing Corporation’s (GPC) corn wet milling plant in Muscatine brought an action for nuisance, trespass and negligence against GPC for its manner of operation of the plant and the resulting “haze, odor, and smoke” emanating from the plant.  The residents moved to treat the claim as a class action suit on behalf of all residents suffering the effects of the plant’s operation.  GPC resisted the motion to certify the case as a class action, arguing that the claims of the residents were “inherently individual, and as such, individual issues predominated over those common to the class.”  The district court granted class certification.  Noting its authority to modify or decertify the class at any time, the court divided the class into two subclasses: one for members in close proximity to GPC, and the other for those in peripheral proximity.  GPC appealed.  Certification of the class action suit was the sole issue before the Iowa Supreme Court (in an earlier case, posted here, these same parties litigated the applicability of the Clean Air Act to local claims for nuisance).

Under Iowa Rules of Civil Procedure 1.261 – 1.263 a district court may certify a class action if “the class is so numerous…that joinder of all members…is impracticable” and “there is a question of law or fact common to the class.”  In addition, a class action should be permitted for the “fair and efficient adjudication of the controversy” and “the representative parties fairly and adequately will protect the interests of the class.”  The Court of Appeals first noted that caselaw requires that “a failure of proof on any one of the prerequisites is fatal to class certification,” but also that, at this stage, “the proponent’s burden is light.”  The Court of Appeals does not review the decision to certify the class itself, but simply whether the district court abused its discretion in doing so.

GPC argued that the district court erred because the requirement of commonality was not met, and that in this case individual issues predominate over common questions of law or fact.

Commonality.  It is not sufficient that class members have all suffered a violation of the same provision of law.  Rather, claims must depend on a common contention of an issue that central to the validity of each one of the claims.  GPC argued that the named plaintiffs did not suffer the same injury of other class members; particularly in the types of harm suffered and the degree of proof needed to prove causation.  The district court initially agreed, noting that two of the plaintiffs –the one closest to GPC and the one furthest – suffered significantly different “concentration totals” of particulates tested in the air.  The Court resolved this disparity, however, by creating the two subclasses and grouping the plaintiffs accordingly.  Thus the plaintiffs within each subclass had identified common questions of extensiveness of emissions, what caused them, what precautions were taken, and economic impact.

Predominance.  A common question does not end the inquiry.  Courts consider class actions appropriate “only where class members have common complaints that can be presented by designated representatives in the unified proceeding.”  It “necessitates a close look at the difficulties likely to be encountered in the management of a class action.”  The district court spent considerable time addressing the predominance question in its ruling.  It concluded “While variations in the individual damage claims are likely to occur and other sources of emissions may pose unusual difficulties, common questions of law and fact regarding defendant’s liability predominate over questions affecting only individual class members such that the subclasses should be permitted for the fair and efficient adjudication of the controversy.”  After going through the standards of proof for negligence, trespass, and nuisance claims, the Court of Appeals agreed with the district court that common questions of law, with common evidentiary findings required of each, will predominate the action, and that therefore class action treatment is appropriate.

Class action certification was affirmed by the Court of Appeals.

SF 447 limits nuisance damages against animal feeding operations

Senate File 447, signed into law on March 29th by Governor Branstad, limits the damages that can be awarded to property owners impacted by agricultural operations. This legislation is likely in response to the 2016 Iowa Supreme Court decision in McIlraith v. Prestage Farms, which held that animal feeding operations are not necessarily protected from nuisance suits based on Iowa Code 657.11(2) (Iowa’s right-to-farm legislation). In that case, the jury awarded damages of more than $500,000 for loss of past enjoyment, diminution in property value, and loss future enjoyment of the McIlraiths’ property.

Under SF 447, any nuisances caused by animal operations, which includes both confined and open feed lots, are presumed to be permanent nuisances. This means that plaintiffs cannot file future suits for continued nuisance.

Plaintiffs’ damages in nuisance suits are also limited to combined the total of:

  1. Permanent loss in property value
  2. Medical costs directly caused by the nuisance
  3. Special damages (annoyance and loss of enjoyment) not to exceed one and a half times the total of 1 plus 2

For more information about SF 447 and its passage see this article from the Des Moines Register.

 

 

Awarding title to city under abandonment statute not an unconstitutional taking

by Gary Taylor

Nicol and Street v. City of Monroe
Iowa Court of Appeals, May 3, 2017

Nicol and Street took title to property in Monroe, Iowa by warranty deed in 2013.  Beginning in May 2013, and over the two years that followed, the city sent them five letters regarding their failure to maintain the property.  Nicol and Street failed to take action, and so in April 2015 the city filed municipal infractions against the couple for several violations regarding junk, vehicles, and garbage on the property.  After a hearing in August 2015 the court entered judgments assessing civil penalties, and ordering them to fully abate the violations.  They did not do so.  Additionally, they failed to pay property taxes since purchasing the property, and utilities were not turned on at the property after June 2015.

In January 2016 the city petitioned for title to the property, alleging it was abandoned under Iowa Code 657A.10A.  Nicol and Street moved for dismissal, alleging that the statute is an unconstitutional taking of private property for a public purpose without just compensation.  The court denied the motion, and found at the end of a bench trial that the property met the definition of “abandoned” under the statute.  It entered an order awarding title to the city, and the couple appealed.

Statutes are presumed to be constitutional, and to prove otherwise a petitioner must “negate every reasonable basis upon which the statute could be upheld as constitutional.”  In determining whether the statute is reasonable, courts consider “such things as the nature of the menace against which it will protect, the availability and effectiveness of other less drastic protective steps, and the loss which appellants will suffer from the imposition of the ordinance.”

The Court of Appeals reviewed the procedural safeguards incorporated into 657A.10A, including that the city cannot act less than 60 days from the filing of the petition and must show that the owner did not make a good-faith effort to comply with the order, and concluded that awarding title to the property is a reasonable “final resort against those property owners who have otherwise failed to comply with housing codes, building codes, nuisance laws, or tax assessments when less drastic steps toward compliance have failed.”  It further noted:

Even in the event of a complete taking, the State is not required to compensate a property owner if it can show that the owner’s bundle of rights never included the right to use the land in the way the regulation forbids….657A.10A provides a sanction for those who use their property in a manner that was already prohibited.  Because the statute does no more than duplicate the result that could have been achieved in the courts by adjacent landowners under the law of private nuisance, or by the State [in the case of public nuisances] it is not a constitutional taking for which compensation is required.

Judgment for the city of Monroe.

Untimely Filing Fatal to Appeal of Board of Adjustment Decision

McCleary v. City of Des Moines Zoning Board of Adjustment
(Iowa Court of Appeals, April 19, 2017)

In September 2014, McCleary applied to the Des Moines Zoning Board of Adjustment seeking several conditional use permits and variances to allow him to operate a pet boarding business out of his home. A public hearing was held on September 22. The board voted to deny all of McCleary’s requests on October 23, 2014. On November 25, 2014 McCleary filed a petition for writ of certiorari appealing the board’s decision. Because of constitutional claims, the case was first sent to federal court. On March 11 the federal district court dismissed all McCleary’s federal claims and the case was remanded to state court.

On October 6, 2015 the Board of Adjustment filed a motion to dismiss arguing that McCleary’s petition for a writ of certiorari was late. State law allows for appeals to be filed only in the 30 days after a decision is made final. On November 2, McCleary filed a motion to disqualify the board’s attorney as that same attorney had previously represented McCleary in another matter. The district court determined on December 18 that McCleary’s petition was indeed untimely. The court also concluded that the plaintiff did not provide substantial evidence that his prior relationship with the defendant’s attorney bore “any relationship to the instant matter.” The district court granted the board’s motion to dismiss.

McCleary appealed that dismissal to the Iowa Court of Appeals. They reviewed the district court’s decisions in the areas of the timeliness of McCleary’s appeal as well as whether the board’s counsel should have been disqualified.

Timeliness Iowa Code section 414.15 establishes the right to appeal a decision from a zoning board and provides “[s]uch petition shall be presented to the court within thirty days after the filing of the decision in the office of the board.” Because McCleary filed his appeal more than 30 days after the board made its decision, the district court did not have jurisdiction to hear it. McCleary asserted that his motion for declaratory relief was not subject to the same timeliness requirements as writs of certiorari. The Court of appeals disagrees. “Regardless of the avenue of relief McCleary chose, he was still appealing the decision of the zoning board and was subject to the statutory requirements of such an appeal.”

Disqualifying Counsel Because the attorney representing the board had previously been involved in representing McCleary, he claimed that the attorney should be disqualified.In determining if a prior relationship is enough to disqualify an attorney the court must determine if the two matters are substantially related. To do so, the court examines three factors:

  1. the nature and scope of the prior representation;
  2. the nature of the present lawsuit; and
  3. whether the client might have disclosed a confidence to [their] attorney in the prior representation which could be relevant to the present action.

The attorney described their prior relationship as, “providing a model letter of intent for a business purchase and reviewing a draft of the letter written either by [the former partner] or by Mr. McCleary.” He also stated that he, “did not meet Mr. McCleary in person and recall no further involvement in the transaction.” McCleary claims a connection exists because the prior representation involved the same property on which he eventually attempted to establish his pet boarding business.  The court failed to see how assisting McCleary’s representation in the property transaction would make him privy to any information that would be relevant to this zoning variance request.

On both matters the court of appeals affirmed the ruling of the district court.