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.

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.

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.

 

 

Constitutional claims not preserved in defense to nuisance citation

by Hannah Dankbar and Gary Taylor

Beaver and Sanderson v City of Davenport
Iowa Court of Appeals, April 27, 2016

Clifford Beaver and Pamela Sanderson have lived as common law husband and wife at their property in the City of Davenport for the past 14 years.  In 2014 the City sent a letter to  Beaver and Sanderson declaring their property a public nuisance under Davenport Municipal Code §8.12, after several neighbors circulated a petition seeking the property to be declared as such. The City’s letter explained that Sanderson’s “erratic behavior” prevented multiple neighbors from enjoying their property. The letter detailed nine directives regarding the activity on and around the property, including prohibitions against “criminal related activity”, harassment of neighbors and guests, calling authorities without cause, accosting people parking on the street, letting their dog run without a leash, and restrictions on using security cameras.  The letter warned Beaver that failure to abate the nuisance could result in citations and fines.

Beaver requested an appeal hearing. After a two-day hearing in April at which seven police officers and seven neighbors were called as witnesses, the hearing officer determined that there was sufficient evidence to support the nuisance abatement and approved the “Nuisance Abatement Plan” which included seven directives. One of the directives prohibited recording or pointing security cameras at any part of any neighboring structure.

Beaver challenged in district court the legality of the hearing officer’s order. The court ruled in favor of the City and Beaver appealed.

On appeal, Beaver argued the district court wrongly upheld the city’s abatement order that declared his property a public nuisance. He presented two claims: (1) “Davenport’s Nuisance and Residential Camera Statutes are unconstitutional on their face; and (2) unconstitutional as applied to his situation.

The court concluded that these challenges were not preserved for their review. These two claims were not presented in district court and therefore cannot be ruled on in the appeal.

The only constitutional claim that was addressed in district court was regarding the residential-camera regulations. Beaver claimed that the City’s ordinance unconstitutionally restricted his “right to maintain surveillance for the purpose of monitoring or protecting [his] property.” The ordinance limits the camera’s field of view to less than fifty-percent of a neighbor’s property. The court determined that this balances a property owner’s right to survey their property with their neighbor’s right to privacy.

On appeal, Beaver claimed that the hearing officer misapplied the camera ordinance. This specific attack on the abatement order was not ruled on in district court, so the appeals court refused to rule on it.

On appeal, the court did not reach any conclusions on the propriety, constitutionality or enforceability of the City’s order due to the issue of preservation. Because of these issues the orders from the lower court were affirmed.

 

 

 

 

 

Prestage Farms CAFO in Poweshiek County not protected from nuisance suit by Iowa Code

by Gary Taylor

Patricia McIlrath v. Prestage Farms of Iowa, LLC
Iowa Court of Appeals, November 23, 2016

The McIlraths purchased their farm in rural Poweshiek County in 1971.  Their son and his family also live on the farm, in a house about 300 feet from the original farmhouse where Patricia and her husband live.  In 2012 Prestage Farms built an animal confinement facility (CAFO) for 2,496 hogs about 2,200 feet from the McIlrath’s home.  In July 2013, the McIlraths brought suit against Prestage, claiming the odor from the CAFO constituted a nuisance.  Prestage requested summary judgment prior to trial, claiming immunity from the suit based on Iowa Code 657.11(2) (Iowa’s right-to-farm legislation), but the Poweshiek District Court granted summary judgment in favor of the McIlraths on this point, finding section 657.11 to be unconstitutional based on the Iowa Supreme Court’s ruling in Gacke v. Pork Xtra.  The Court found, even if the statute was not unconstitutional based on the facts of the case, the statute would not provide immunity to Prestage Farms if (1) the CAFO unreasonably and for substantial periods of time interfered with the person’s comfortable use and enjoyment of the person’s life and property, and (2) the CAFO failed to use existing prudent generally accepted management practices reasonable for the operation.  The jury returned a verdict affirmatively determining that both points were met by the evidence.  It awarded damages of $100,000 for loss of past enjoyment, $300,000 for loss of future enjoyment, and $125,000 for diminution of property value.  Prestage appealed.

The Court of Appeals first examined Prestage’s claim that Iowa Code 657.11 in fact confers immunity from nuisance claims in the present case.  The court focused on the following passage from Gacke:

Property owners like the Gackes bear the brunt of the undesirable impact of this statute without any corresponding benefit.  Moreover, their right to use and enjoy their property is significantly impaired by a business operated as a nuisance, yet they have no remedy.  Unlike a property owner who comes to a nuisance, these landowners lived on and invested in their property long before Pork Xtra constructed its confinement facilities.  Under these circumstances, the police power is not used for its traditional purpose of insuring that individual citizens use their property “with due regard to the personal and property rights and privileges of others.”  [citation omitted].  Instead, one property owner—the producer—is given the right to use his property without due regard for the personal and property rights of his neighbor.  We conclude that section 657.11(2) as applied to the Gackes is unduly oppressive and, therefore, not a reasonable exercise of the state’s police power.  Accordingly, the statutory immunity violates article I, section 1 of the Iowa Constitution and may not be relied upon as a defense in this case.  We express no opinion as to whether the statute might be constitutionally applied under other circumstances.

The Court of Appeals concluded that in all relevant aspects, the factual situation in the present case was substantially similar to that presented in Gacke, making 657.11 unconstitutional in the present case.  There was no evidence McIlraths received any benefit from the statute, and they lived on and made improvements to their property long before the CAFO was built.

Prestage claimed several irregularities in the trial proceedings warranted a new trial; however, the Court of Appeals rejected all Prestage’s claims. Similarly, the court rejected all claims of Prestage that the evidence submitted at trial was insufficient to support the jury’s conclusion of liability and award of damages.

Land application of biosolids was “normal agricultural operation,” triggering right-to-farm protections

by Hannah Dankbar and Gary Taylor

Gilbert v. Synagro Central
Pennsylvania Supreme Court, December 21, 2015

Appellees are thirty-four individuals who own or reside on properties next to a 220-acre farm in York County, Pennsylvania. The farm contracts with two companies who recycle biosolids to be used as fertilizer.

Between March 2006 and April 2009 approximately 11,635 wet tons of biosolids were applied to the farm. Appellees claimed that when the biosolids were applied there were strong, unpleasant odors that impacted their daily lives and made some residents ill.

Appellees complained to local officials, the biosolid companies and state officials with no response. In 2008 they filed two three-count complaints, which were consolidated. One of the complaints was that the appellants’ biosolids activities created a private nuisance.

Appellants argued that § 954(a) of the Right to Farm Act (RTFA) barred the nuisance claim. The relevant part reads:

No nuisance action shall be brought against an agricultural operation which has lawfully been in operation for one year or more prior to the date of bringing such action, where the conditions or circumstances complained of as constituting the basis for the nuisance action have existed substantially unchanged since the established date of operation and are normal agricultural operations.

The trial court determined that land application of biosolids is a “normal agricultural operation” under the RTFA. They found that land application of biosolids was not a substantial change in the farm business, and that farms have used different types of fertilizer for centuries. Also, appellees failed to identify what duty appellants owed them, which is an essential part to their claim.

On appeal the Superior Court reversed and remanded the nuisance claim. The court identified three requirements of the RTFA that must be met for a nuisance action to be barred: (1) the agricultural operation has an established date of operation at least one year prior to the filing of the action; (2) the conditions or circumstances constituting the basis of the action have been substantially unchanged since the established date of operation; and (3) the conditions are a “normal agricultural operation.” The court found that the first two requirements were met, but the third was not because there was no factual finding that application of biosolids was a “normal agricultural operation.” Regarding the second requirement, the court determined that a substantial change can reset the clock on the one-year allotment to file a claim. However, application began in 2006 and the complaint was not filed until 2008.

On appeal, the Supreme Court agreed with the Superior Court’s decision on the first two requirements. It then further addressed the question of whether the trial court correctly concluded that land application of biosolids as fertilizer is a “normal agricultural operation.” In addressing this question the court made extensive inquiry into the history of the land application of biosolids as fertilizer, related statutes and regulations, case law and executive agencies’ views.  At the conclusion of this inquiry the Court found support to determine that the application of biosolids falls under “normal agricultural operations.” Because the RTFA is meant to protect farmers from nuisance claims, the definition of normal agricultural operations must reflect accepted changes in agricultural practices, including the increased use of biosolids.  The result was that  the farm was protected from the nuisance claim.

 

Weeds are not protected speech or expression

by Hannah Dankbar

Discount Inn, Inc. v. City of Chicago
Federal 7th Circuit Court of Appeals, September 28, 2015

(Note that the Court included photos of native Illinois plants in its written opinion; a very unusual practice)

Chicago’s Department of Administrative Hearings decided that Discount Inn, Inc. violated the weed and fence ordinances.  The weed ordinance reads:

Any person who owns or controls property within the city must cut or other‐ wise control all weeds on such property so that the average height of such weeds does not exceed ten inches. Any person who violates this subsection shall be subject to a fine of not less than $600 nor more than $1,200. Each day that such violation continues shall be considered a separate offense to which a separate fine shall apply.

The fence ordinance reads:

It shall be the duty of the owner of any open lot located within the City of Chicago to cause the lot to be surrounded with a noncombustible screen fence …. Provided, however, that this section shall not apply to … sideyards. The owner shall maintain any such fence in a safe condition without tears, breaks, rust, splinters or dangerous protuberances and in a manner that does not endanger or threaten to endanger vehicular traffic by obstructing the view of drivers. Any fence which is not maintained in accordance with these provisions is hereby declared to be a public nuisance and shall be removed … . It shall be the duty of the owner of any lot whose fence has been so removed to replace such fence with a noncombustible screen fence meeting the requirements of this section and of this Code.” Municipal Code of Chicago § 7‐28‐750(a). Violators “shall be fined not less than $300 nor more than $600 for each offense,” and “each day such violation continues shall constitute a separate and distinct offense to which a separate fine shall apply.

Discount Inn made two claims: (1) the ordinances violate the prohibition against “excessive fines” in the Eight Amendment; and (2) the weed ordinance is vague and forbids expressive activity protected by the First Amendment.

In regards to the first claim, the Supreme Court has not decided whether this clause applies to state action. This court assumes that it does apply, but found that the fines are not excessive. The fines for both ordinances enforce a legitimate government interest. Fencing vacant lots are important for identifying abandoned lots. The City has an interest in controlling weeds because uncontrolled weeds lead to problems such as obscuring debris, providing habitat to rodents and mosquitos, and contributing to breathing problems.

Regarding the second claim, Discount Inn argued that native plants are mistaken for weeds and their use is unnecessarily limited because of the ordinance. There is no clear definition of a weed in the city code. Discount Inn does not argue that they have native or other decorative plants, but simply rather that the ten-inch rule violates the free-speech clause of the First Amendment. It is true that the First Amendment protects some non-spoken work, such as paintings; however, the Court concluded that these weeds have no expressive value. The owner did nothing to cultivate or design the weeds.

Discount Inn also argues that the ordinances are unconstitutional because they do not specify a statute of limitations. There is no rule that there must be a statute of limitations. Prescribing a statute of limitations for a weed ordinance would require an insane use of city resources.

The decision was upheld.

Fear about dangers in the vicinity of property insufficient to constitute nuisance

by Andrea Vaage

Smith & Wunderlich v Conoco Phillips Pipe Line Company
Federal 8th Circuit Court of Appeals, September 15, 2015

Conoco Phillips owns a pipeline constructed in 1930 that runs through part of West Alton, a small town in Missouri. A leak was discovered near the town in 1963. The source of leak was repaired, but no remediation efforts were made to clean up the spill. Contaminants from the spill were discovered at a residence near the spill in 2002. Phillips purchased that residence and two others. Under supervision of the Missouri DNR, the buildings were demolished; 4,000 cubic yards of soil was removed; and monitoring wells were set up to test for chemicals of concern (COCs) such as benzene, toluene, ethyle benzene, xylenes, and lead.

Plaintiffs, the Smiths and Wunderlichs, property owners within 1.1 mile radius of contamination site, filed a class action suit in district court October 2011. Their complaint identified two separate classes, each including property owners within a 1.1 mile radius of the contamination site. The first class sought injunctive relief and monetary damages for creation of a nuisance and negligence for remediation. The second class sought compensation for ongoing expenses of medical monitoring due to potential exposure to pollutants from the pipeline leak. The district court certified the first class, but not the second. In certifying the first class the court relied on evidence and expert testimony that contaminants were found in the monitoring wells, that pollutants could continually shift, and that MTBE, a gasoline additive, had been found at one residence one quarter mile away from the contamination site. Phillips appealed the court’s decision to certify the first class.

In cases of certification, the district court is granted broad discretion. A higher court will only reverse a certification where there has been an abuse of discretion or an error of law. Four standards must be met to certify a class: numerosity, commonality, typicality, and adequacy of representation.

In order for commonality to be met, the plaintiff’s must show that all class members suffered the same injury. The plaintiff’s demonstrated contamination by citing the MBTE found on the Wunderlichs’ property. However, there was no MBTE found at the contamination site. None of the chemicals found at the contamination site were detected at any of the class members’ property; however, plaintiffs’ claim that physical invasion is not required for the contamination site to be a nuisance, because the fear of contamination depressed their property values. The Court cited recent cases that establish that fear alone is not enough to meet the requirement that a nuisance be visible or capable of physical detection. “Negative publicity resulting in unfounded fear about dangers in the vicinity of the property does not constitute a significant interference with the use and enjoyment of land:  The potential for contamination does not amount to sufficient proof of a nuisance. Since plaintiff’s were unable to establish contamination on the class land, the nuisance claim fails.

The Court determined the fear of contamination without sufficient supporting proof was not enough to establish a claim for common law nuisance. The Court found the district court ruling certifying the class was an abuse of discretion. The case was reversed and remanded.

Missouri Right-to-Farm statute upheld by Missouri Supreme Court

by Hannah Dankbar and Gary Taylor

Labrayere v. Bohr Farms
Missouri Supreme Court, April 14, 2015

Multiple landowners filed suit against Cargill Pork LLC and Bohr Farms alleging damages for temporary nuisance, negligence and conspiracy due to odors coming from a concentrated feeding animal operation (CAFO) owned and operated by Bohr Farms. The landowners who filed the complaint claimed that they lost the use and enjoyment of their property.  Neither rental value nor medical conditions were issues raised by the landowners in this case. The circuit court found that Bohr Farms was not responsible for paying damages.

In 2011 section 537.296 went into effect. This statute supersedes common law related to actions that result in an alleged nuisance coming from a property that is used primarily for crop or animal production. This statute prohibits non-economic damage recovery for items such as loss of use and enjoyment of property, inconvenience or discomfort that the agricultural nuisance caused, and allows recovery only for a diminished market value of property and documented medical costs.  Only a few days after the statute was passed Bohr Farms began their CAFO operation that can feed 4,000 hogs. Bohr owns and operates the CAFO and Cargill owns the hogs. The CAFO includes an on-site sewage disposal system as well as a system for composting deceased hogs. The plaintiffs raised seven constitutional issues. Appellants claimed that section 537.296 is unconstitutional for seven reasons.

 

Constitutional Claims

  1. Section 537.296 impermissibly authorized an unconstitutional private taking.  Plaintiffs argued that the statute, “effectively provide[s] the right of eminent domain to private companies.” The Court stated that, “The fact that private parties benefit from a taking does not eliminate the public character of the taking so long as there is some benefit to any considerable number of the public.”  A use is public if it reasonably likely to create some advantage or benefit for the public.  The Court noted that the statute did not authorize any private party to create a nuisance.
  2. Section 537.296 authorized a taking without requiring just compensation. Under the statute all nuisance claims following the initial temporary nuisance claim are to be considered a permanent nuisance. The plaintiffs claimed that this essentially grants an easement for the respondent to interfere with the full use and enjoyment of their land. The court found this argument was not ripe because the appellants were only seeking relief for a temporary nuisance in this case. The court noted that the statute specifically allowed the recovery of damages for loss in rental value of impacted property when a temporary nuisance was present.  That satisfied the constitutionally required just compensation when a temporary nuisance amounts to a temporary taking.
  3. Section 537.296 violated the plaintiffs’ constitutional right of equal protection. The plaintiffs claimed that the statute creates a suspect class of “rural landowners and residents” and therefore the statute should have to withstand strict scrutiny. Historically, rural landowners have not been oppressed and the statute benefits rural landowners who use their land for agricultural purposes, so there is no suspect class. The argument related to the fundamental right to property conflicts with the established right of the state to confiscate property to “substantially advance a legitimate state interest.” Therefore, the statute only has to withstand the rational basis test. The Court presumes the state has a rational basis for this statute and the appellants had to demonstrate a “clear showing of arbitrariness and irrationality” before the statute can be declared unconstitutional.
  4. Section 237.296 violates due process. This argument relied on a finding that a fundamental right had been violated, but the Court already determined there was no fundamental right violated.
  5. Section 537.296 violates separation of powers. The appellants claimed that the statue requiring a person to have “ownership interest” in order to have standing is a judicial decision that the legislature did not have the power to make. Nobody in this case was denied standing because of this, and none of the plaintiffs were injured as a result of this part of the statute. The court will not rule on hypothetical questions of standing.
  6. Section 537.296 violates the open courts clause. Article I, section 14 of the Missouri Constitution guarantees “the right to pursue in the courts the causes of actions the substantive law recognizes.” The plaintiffs’ asserted that the statute denied access to the court to “lawful possessors and occupiers of land”; however, the plaintiffs did not claim that the statute restricts access to the courts, so they did not have an argument to support this claim.
  7. Section 537.296 is an unconstitutional special law. Finally, plaintiffs argued that this statute “benefits only the corporate farming industry.” Article III, section 40 of the Missouri Constitution does not allow the legislature to enact “special laws” when a general law will work. Special laws, “includes less than all who are similarly situated… but a law is not a special if it applies to all of the given class alike and the classification is make on a reasonable basis.” The court said that the landowners that can take advantage of the statute could change, as could the land uses.  The open-ended classification, the Court noted, was reasonable because it advanced the legitimate state purpose of promoting the agricultural economy.

Plaintiffs argued that, according to a negligence or conspiracy cause of action, they should receive “use and enjoyment” recovery. They also argued that there are not enough facts to demonstrate that Cargill was not vicariously liable for Bohr’s alleged negligence. The statute allows people to recover non-economic “use and enjoyment” damages only if their negligence and conspiracy claims are “independent of a claim of nuisance.” The court found that Appellants’ negligence, conspiracy and vicarious liability claims were not “independent of a claim of nuisance” because those claims were dependent on the nuisance claims.

The ruling of the circuit court was upheld.

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