Iowa Supreme Court preview: Is Iowa’s law protecting hog confinements from lawsuits unconstitutional?

By: Rox Laird on February 9th, 2018

The Iowa Supreme Court will hear arguments Feb. 12 in a case that could dramatically affect all legal disputes between rural residents and livestock confinement operators. The session is scheduled for 7 p.m. Monday at the Judicial Branch Building in Des Moines to accommodate members of the public.

The justices will hear oral arguments in one case – Honomichl v. Valley View Swine – on whether an Iowa statute that gives livestock operations limited immunity from nuisance liability violates the inalienable rights clause in Article I, Section 1 of the Iowa Constitution.

A ruling striking down the statute could open the door to more lawsuits against confined-animal feeding operations (CAFOs) across the state. The pork industry already faces numerous suits, according to the defendant-appellants, who say there have been as many as 15 individual nuisance suits pending at one time in nine Iowa counties involving hundreds of plaintiffs.

The lawsuit that led to this appeal was initially filed by 70 individual plaintiffs, subsequently divided into three groups by the trial court with designated “bellwether” plaintiffs representing each group. The plaintiff-appellees testified in depositions that odors from the nearly 10,000 hogs confined nearby prevent outdoor activities, such as cookouts or hanging out laundry, and cause headaches and nose and throat irritations.

The parties’ arguments are bolstered by two amicus curiae (friend of the court) briefs filed with the Iowa Supreme Court, one in support of the defendant-appellants by the Iowa Pork Producers Association and the Iowa Farm Bureau Federation, and one in support of the plaintiff-appellees by the Iowa Association for Justice, a trial lawyers group.

At the heart of the case is Iowa Code section 657.11, which says an animal-feeding operation “shall not be found to be a public or private nuisance” so long as it complies with State and federal laws and regulations. An exception is made for a confinement facility that both “unreasonably and for substantial periods of time” interferes with a person’s “comfortable use and enjoyment of the person’s life or property” and that fails to use “existing prudent generally accepted management practices reasonable for the operation.”

The defendants, who built hog-confinement buildings on two sites in Wapello County in 2013, appeal a ruling on pre-trial motions by Wapello County District Judge Annette Scieszinski that the immunity statute is unconstitutional as applied to the plaintiffs, who have lived in their homes since before the hog-confinement buildings were erected.

The Wapello County trial court’s ruling is based on a 2004 Iowa Supreme Court ruling, Gacke v. Pork Xtra, which found the immunity statute unconstitutional under the takings clause of the Iowa Constitution because it amounted to taking private property for the benefit of confinement operators without just compensation.

The Court in Gacke limited the holding as it applied to the plaintiffs in that suit based on their proximity to the hog facility, how long they had lived there, how much they had invested in their property and whether they received any direct benefits from the confinement facility.

The hog-confinement operators argue that the Wapello County District Court wrongly ruled that the statute likewise violated the constitutional rights of the plaintiffs in this case because the trial court did not base its ruling on a factual analysis specific to the Wapello County plaintiffs.

“The ruling purports to follow in the footsteps of the Gacke Court in holding the statute unconstitutional ‘as applied’ to plaintiffs,” they argue in a brief submitted to the Iowa Supreme Court. “However, unlike Gacke, the ruling is devoid of facts and analysis necessary to establish an ‘as applied’ challenge sufficient to overcome the presumption of validity afforded to section 657.11 and all statutes enacted by the General Assembly.”

The confinement operators urge the Court to affirm the constitutionality of section 657.11, which they argue strikes a proper balance between the rights of neighbors and farmers and is an appropriate use of the Legislature’s powers to protect a vital Iowa industry from being assaulted by lawsuits.

The neighboring residents, in a brief submitted to the Court, say the trial court reached the correct conclusion and they urge the Iowa Supreme Court to uphold it. But they urge the Court to go further and declare the statute unconstitutional on its face “because it unduly oppresses an individual’s right to use and enjoy property by denying her right to recover for an injury to the same.”

The Pork Producers and Iowa Farm Bureau, in their amicus brief, urge the Court to clarify Gacke to take into account more stringent regulations of animal-confinement operations that have been enacted since that decision was handed down 14 years ago.

“Because of the drastic changes in statutory and regulatory requirements for livestock facilities since the Gacke case,” the brief argues, “it is no longer workable or effective to compare plaintiffs in today’s nuisance cases to the Gackes in determining constitutionality of the statute because the Gacke facts would be impossible to repeat under the current statutory and regulatory requirements.”

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On Brief is devoted to appellate litigation, with a focus on the Iowa Supreme Court, the Iowa Court of Appeals, and the United States Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit.
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