Iowa’s Right-to-Farm law constitutional, but limited in its application

This post is a summary of an article by Kristine A. Tidgren that first appeared on The Ag Docket, from the ISU Center for Agricultural Law and Taxation. See the full version here.

Honomichl v. Valley View Swine, LLC
Iowa Supreme Court, June 22, 2018

 

Iowa’s agricultural nuisance law has perhaps become a little clearer, albeit no simpler to apply. On Friday, June 22, 2018, the Iowa Supreme Court issued a key ruling analyzing the constitutionality of Iowa’s embattled right-to-farm statute, Iowa Code § 657.11(2). The immunity statute at issue, states:

An animal feeding operation, […] shall not be found to be a public or private nuisance […] However, this section shall not apply if the person bringing the action proves that an injury to the person or damage to the person’s property is proximately caused by either of the following:

a. The failure to comply with a federal statute or regulation or a state statute or rule which applies to the animal feeding operation.

b. Both of the following:

(1) The animal feeding operation unreasonably and for substantial periods of time interferes with the person’s comfortable use and enjoyment of the person’s life or property.

(2) The animal feeding operation failed to use existing prudent generally accepted management practices reasonable for the operation.

The defendants in this case include the owner of two animal feeding operations in Wapello County. The units were constructed in compliance with DNR permits and setback requirement. The plaintiffs are neighboring homeowners who purchased their properties before the units were built. The units began their operations in the late summer of 2013. Several months later, plaintiffs filed their initial nuisance action. The defendants sought summary judgment, arguing that Iowa Code § 657.11(2) granted them immunity from such damage suits. The plaintiffs argued that the statute was unconstitutional, as applied to their case. The district court granted the plaintiffs partial summary judgment on that issue, and the Iowa Supreme Court agreed to hear the interlocutory appeal.

In an earlier decision Gacke v. Pork Xtra, L.L.C. (Iowa 2004), the Court found that while the law itself was a valid exercise of the state police power, it was unconstitutional as applied as it had denied the ability of the plaintiffs to sue for damages. In Gacke the court created the following three part test that courts should use to determine if plaintiffs have the right to sue. The plaintiffs must have:

  1. Received no particular benefit from the nuisance immunity granted to their neighbors other than that inuring to the public in general,
  2. Sustained significant hardship, AND
  3. Resided on their property long before any animal operation was commenced on neighboring land and had spent considerable sums of money in improvements to their property prior to construction of the defendant’s facilities.

 

Fast forward to 2018. Since Gacke, every district court that has faced the question has found Iowa Code § 657.11(2) unconstitutional “as applied.” The district court in Honomichl was no exception. The defendants in this case urged the court to reexamine and overturn the Gacke precedent. The plaintiffs asked the Court to declare the statute facially invalid or unconstitutional under all circumstances.

The Iowa Supreme Court upheld Gacke and clarified the procedure that should now be followed by courts in nuisance cases involving feeding operations. The Gacke factors, the court explained, require a fact-based analysis that will generally require a trial on the merits, or at least an evidentiary pretrial hearing. The Court stated that although it is possible that an as-applied constitutional challenge to the statute could be resolved in pretrial litigation, the proper procedure is as follows:

  • The trial court is to allow the CAFO to plead the affirmative defense, if applicable.
  • Plaintiffs asserting the unconstitutionality of the statute, as it applies to them, must then prove the existence of the three Gacke factors.
  • If the plaintiff is successful, the immunity will not apply.
  • If the plaintiff is unsuccessful in a pretrial hearing held for the specific purpose of determining the as-applied challenge, the plaintiffs may still rely on the other exceptions to the immunity found in the statute: The failure to comply with a federal  or state statute, regulation, or rule OR (1) The animal feeding operation unreasonable and for substantial periods of time interferes with the person’s comfortable use and enjoyment of life or property AND (2) The animal feeding operation failed to use existing prudent generally accepted management practices reasonable for the operation

 

It is now clear that district courts must engage in significant fact finding before they can declare that granting immunity from special damages to a defendant would violate a specific plaintiff’s constitutional rights. This can’t occur until after a trial or an evidentiary pretrial hearing. As such, the three-prong Gacke test essentially transforms the Iowa statute from an immunity provision into a rewrite of Iowa nuisance law for plaintiffs suing an animal feeding operation.

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