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Porter v. Harden

Supreme Court of Iowa

March 10, 2017


         On review from the Iowa Court of Appeals.

         Appeal from the Iowa District Court for Wayne County, Paul R. Huscher, Judge.

         Property owners seek further review of a court of appeals decision that found a farm tenancy existed and therefore reversed a district court judgment granting them possession of this property. DECISION OF COURT OF APPEALS VACATED; DISTRICT COURT JUDGMENT AFFIRMED.

          Richard L. Harden and Janice Harden, Lineville, pro se appellants.

          Verle W. Norris, Corydon, for appellee.

          MANSFIELD, Justice.

         This case requires us to determine whether a tenant's decision to graze a single horse on the property where the tenant resides is enough to establish a farm tenancy and trigger the special termination protections of Iowa Code sections 562.5 through 562.7. Reading the statute as a whole, we conclude that land which is not devoted primarily to the production of crops or the care and feeding of livestock cannot be the foundation for a chapter 562 farm tenancy. Therefore, we affirm the judgment of the district court and vacate the decision of the court of appeals.

         I. Background Facts and Proceedings.

         The essential facts are undisputed. For twenty-four years, Richard and Janice Harden lived in a home in Wayne County. Gary and Lori Porter owned this six-acre property. At some point, Richard Harden filed a lawsuit claiming he had an oral agreement to buy the property from Gary Porter, but the district court ruled against him, and in 2014, the court of appeals affirmed this ruling. See Harden v. Porter, No. 12-2293, 2014 WL 969970 (Iowa Ct. App. Mar. 12, 2014).

         Thereafter, on January 23, 2015, the Porters served the Hardens with a thirty-day notice seeking to terminate the Hardens' tenancy of the property. At the conclusion of the thirty days, the Porters followed up with a three-day notice to quit and a forcible entry and detainer (FED) action. The Hardens filed an answer in the FED action, alleging that they had a farm tenancy and the Porters had not complied with the legal requirements for terminating a farm tenancy. See Iowa Code §§ 562.5-.7 (2015) (requiring written notice of termination of a farm tenancy to be served on or before September 1 for termination the following March 1). The Hardens specifically alleged that they "occupied the property for agricultural purpose."

         In addition, the Hardens alleged in their answer that the entire property consisted of nine acres and the Porters had not sought to terminate the west three-acre tract that another party-not the Porters- owned.[1] Further, the Hardens filed a separate action seeking relief under Iowa Code chapter 560 for various improvements they had allegedly made to the six-acre property, including $23, 435 for rendering the residence habitable, $24, 950 for erecting a metal shed, $25, 080 for providing valuable labor and materials to Gary Porter, and $11, 765 for building and installing an outdoor wood furnace.

         The district court held a hearing in the FED action on March 24. The parties stipulated that there had been no actual rental agreement, that the Hardens were residing on the premises and kept one thirty-eight-year-old horse there, and that the Porters had served a thirty-day notice to terminate the tenancy.

         The district court granted the Porters' motion to have the FED case docketed as an equity case rather than a small claims proceeding. It then ruled that the Porters had complied with the general requirements for terminating a tenancy at will, and that "the keeping of one 38-year-old horse does not make this a farm tenancy." The court therefore found that the Porters were entitled to removal of the Hardens from the premises at issue. The court ordered, however, that no execution or writ removal would issue until the Hardens' action for alleged improvements to the property had been resolved. See Iowa Code § 560.1.[2]

         The Hardens appealed. They argued that "one older mare" was sufficient to establish a farm tenancy. They also argued that the FED action should not have been decided until their action based on the improvements had also been resolved. Lastly, they maintained that the owners of the other three acres should have joined in the FED action and were necessary parties.

         We transferred the case to the court of appeals. That court found that under the unambiguous statutory language, one pasturing horse was enough to establish a farm tenancy. It reasoned that Iowa Code section 562.1A's definition of "farm tenancy" indirectly incorporated Iowa Code section 717.1's definition of "livestock, " and the latter definition included "an animal belonging to the . . . equine . . . species." Iowa Code § 717.1(4). On this basis, it found that "an" animal-i.e., one animal- was sufficient for a farm tenancy. The court of appeals also held that the exemption for farm tenancies of less than forty acres "where an animal feeding operation is the primary use of the acreage" did not apply because the Hardens mainly used the property as a residence, not an animal feeding operation. See Iowa Code § 562.6. Hence, while conceding that "it may seem absurd to deem this tenancy a farm tenancy, " the court of appeals concluded the Porters had not complied with the chapter 562 requirements for termination of the Hardens' occupancy and reversed the district court's judgment.

         We granted the Porters' application for further review.

         II. Standard of Review.

         Forcible entry and detainer actions are equitable actions, and therefore our scope of review is de novo. Iowa Code § 648.15; Horizon Homes of Davenport v. Nunn, 684 N.W.2d 221, 224 (Iowa 2004). "We give weight to the district court's factual findings, but are not bound by them." Schaefer v. Schaefer, 795 N.W.2d 494, 497 (Iowa 2011). When the issue requires statutory interpretation, however, our review is for correction of errors at law. See Horizon Homes of Davenport, 684 N.W.2d at 224.

         III. Analysis.

         Subject to certain qualifications, to terminate a farm tenancy, Iowa law generally requires written notice to be given on or before September 1 with termination to occur the following March 1. See Iowa Code §§ 562.5-.7. Our present law derives from legislation enacted in 1939. See 1939 Iowa Acts ch. 235, § 1 (now codified as amended at Iowa Code §§ 562.5-.7). In a 1943 decision, we upheld the constitutionality of this legislation and explained its justification as follows:

It is quite apparent that during recent years the old concept of duties and responsibilities of the owners and operators of farm land has undergone a change. Such persons, by controlling the food source of the nation, bear a certain responsibility to the general public. They possess a vital part of the national wealth, and legislation designed to stop waste and exploitation in the interest of the general public is within the sphere of the state's police power. Whether this legislation has, or will in the future, accomplish the desired result is not for this court to determine. The legislature evidently felt that ...

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