Written by: Amie Alexander, JD/MPS Candidate, William H. Bowen School of Law


The Iowa Supreme Court has reversed a lower court’s dismissal of nuisance claims brought by owners of real estate located near an operator’s confined animal feeding operations (CAFO). The court held that genuine issues of material fact existed, and the plaintiff’s nuisance claims should not have been granted in part on summary judgment. In so doing, the court upheld its prior precedent which provides a three-pronged test for analyzing nuisance claims under Iowa’s right-to-farm statute. However, the court clarified that courts analyzing these claims must engage in a fact-based analysis before ruling on pre-trial motions for summary judgment.

Background

The plaintiffs in this case, Honomichl v. Valley View Swine, LLC, 2018 WL 3083982 (2018), filed suit against defendants, operators of two CAFOs, claiming that the operators were negligent in their operation, and that the CAFOs constitute a nuisance which entitles the plaintiffs to damages for “the loss of use and enjoyment of their property due to the odors, pathogens, and flies that allegedly emanate from the CAFOs.”

The controversy in this case centers around two CAFOs which obtained permits from the Iowa Department of Natural Resources in April 2013. Shortly after the CAFOs began operation, seventy individuals (including current plaintiffs) filed suit, which was later dismissed for failure to comply with a state-law mediation requirement. The majority of these plaintiffs re-filed, and the district court severed the case into three divisions. This ruling arises out of Division C.

In district court, the operators filed a motion for summary judgment on the nuisance claims, arguing that Iowa’s right-to-farm statute bars such claims.  The district court denied operators’ motion and granted plaintiffs’ motion for partial summary judgment, finding the statute in violation of the Iowa Constitution as applied to this case.

Iowa Supreme Court’s Analysis

On appeal, operators argued that the district court erred in granting the plaintiffs’ motion for partial summary judgment by finding the Iowa right-to-farm statute in violation of the Iowa Constitution, because the district court “improperly applied [the court’s] previous holding . . . to this case without making specific factual findings.” Operators asked the court to revisit this previous precedent.

The court previously examined the constitutionality of the right-to-farm statute in Gacke v. Pork Xtra, L.L.C., 684 N.W.2d 168 (Iowa 2004). In Gacke, the court found that the statute created an easement on the plaintiffs’ property in violation of the takings clause of the Iowa Constitution. This holding was based on three facts in that case: (1) the plaintiffs received no particular benefit from the nuisance immunity granted to the CAFOs other than inuring to the public in general; (2) the plaintiffs sustained significant hardship; and (3) the plaintiffs had resided on the property since 1974, making considerable improvements to the property, and their property value was reduced by approximately $50,000 after the construction of the CAFOs in 1996. The court further reasoned the statute was unconstitutional as applied to the plaintiffs because as applied to them, “one property owner . . . was given the right to use his property without due regard for the personal and property rights of his neighbor.” After Gacke, Iowa Courts use the above three factors as a three-pronged test.

Here, the court noted the change in the legal landscape regulating CAFOs since Gacke was decided. For example, in Gacke, the plaintiffs lived much closer to the CAFOs than is legally allowed currently, and significantly further from the operations at issue here. Additionally, the Iowa legislature has since enacted more requirements addressing the construction and manure management of CAFOs. Even so, the court declined to depart from the Gacke factors when analyzing an as-applied constitutional challenge.

In the case at issue here, the court agreed with the operators that the district court improperly applied Gacke. The factors require a fact-based analysis which generally can not be proven in the pretrial phase of litigation. Thus, a court analyzing analogous situations should hold a pretrial hearing to allow the court to properly balance the Gacke factors with the legislative purpose of the right-to-farm statute. Because that was not the case here before the motion for summary judgment was granted, the case was reversed and remanded back to the district court in order to consider the facts accordingly.