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Dakota, Minnesota & Eastern Railroad v. Iowa District Court for Louisa County

Supreme Court of Iowa

June 30, 2017


         Certiorari to the Iowa District Court for Louisa County, Michael J. Schilling, Judge.

         The owner of a railroad right-of-way and bridge challenges a district court order finding it in contempt for violating a 1977 judgment imposing an injunction against a prior owner of the right-of-way and bridge.

          Kerry A. Finley and Nancy J. Penner of Shuttleworth & Ingersoll, P.L.C., Cedar Rapids, and Daniel P. Kitchen, Washington, for plaintiff.

          William Scott Power of Aspelmeier, Fisch, Power, Engberg & Helling, P.L.C., Burlington, for defendant.

          HECHT, Justice.

         An injunction was issued by judgment in 1977 against the owner of a railroad right-of-way directing it to reconstruct a dike designed to channel creek water under the railroad's bridge and away from adjacent farmland. Nearly forty years later, a drainage district that was joined as a defendant in the earlier litigation asked the district court to hold a subsequent purchaser of the right-of-way in contempt for willfully violating the injunction. The district court found the subsequent purchaser in contempt for failing to reconstruct and maintain the dike. In this certiorari proceeding, we must determine whether a 1977 judgment granting an injunction of unspecified duration against a former owner of the right-of-way is enforceable nearly forty years later through a contempt action against a subsequent purchaser. Because we conclude the 1977 judgment expired under Iowa Code section 614.1(6) (2013) before this proceeding to enforce it was commenced, we sustain the writ and vacate the decision of the district court.

         I. Factual and Procedural Background.

         A. Whiskey Creek and Bridge 110.

         Dakota, Minnesota & Eastern Railroad (DM&E) purchased the railroad right-of-way and bridge that is the subject of this dispute in 2008. Initially owned by the Chicago, Rock Island & Pacific Railroad (CRI&P), the right-of-way runs in a generally east-west direction through Muscatine and Louisa Counties in Eastern Iowa. In 1872, CRI&P built a bridge in Louisa County, referred to in the record as Bridge 110, [1] to allow the railroad tracks to pass over Whiskey Creek, [2] a natural stream flowing east from the Mississippi River bluffs, along the northern edge of the right-of-way, past Bridge 110, and into the Muscatine Slough.[3] At times in the past, a dike turned the creek water under Bridge 110 and across farmland to the south until it drained into the Muscatine Slough.

         B. The Drainage Problem.

         In the 145 years since Bridge 110 was constructed, the creek water has not consistently passed under the bridge and drained to the south. Whiskey Creek "has a steep grade" as it leaves the bluffs. Chi., Rock Island & Pac. Ry. v. Lynch, 163 Iowa 283, 285, 143 N.W. 1083, 1084 (1913). Especially during heavy rains, it carries significant quantities of sediment and debris that plug the channel under Bridge 110, causing water to flood and damage fields north of the bridge. In addition, the dike constructed to direct water under the bridge has repeatedly failed, causing water and debris to move parallel to the bridge, instead of under it, until it eventually drained into the slough.

         Silt and debris flowing through Whiskey Creek are deposited in the Muscatine Slough, inhibiting the flow of water into and through that waterway. Over the course of a season or occasionally after a single substantial rain, the silt and debris plug the Muscatine Slough, causing water to flood and damage crops in fields north of the plugs. The drainage district has repeatedly cleared the plugs and enabled the water to again empty into the slough.[4]

         C. Prior Drainage Litigation.

         The responsibility for maintaining drainage in the vicinity of Bridge 110 and the surrounding area within the drainage district has been a subject of recurring litigation for more than a century. In 1907, CRI&P closed the channel under Bridge 110, which had gradually been filling with sediment and debris, forcing the creek water to change course and travel east, parallel to the right-of-way. Id. at 286, 143 N.W.2d at 1084. As a consequence of this change in the channel of the creek, land to the north of the railroad right-of-way occasionally flooded. Id.

         1. 1911 injunction.

         In 1911, CRI&P filed an action against landowners on both sides of the bridge, seeking a declaration that CRI&P was no longer obligated to maintain the flow of water under Bridge 110 because the natural flow of Whiskey Creek had changed.[5] Chi., Rock Island & Pac. Ry. v. Lynch, No. 6304, at *2 (Iowa Dist. Ct. Sept. 16, 1911). The district court ruled against CRI&P, determining the natural flow of Whiskey Creek remained through the railroad's right-of-way and to the south under Bridge 110. Id. The district court ordered CRI&P and the landowner to the south of the railroad's right-of-way to promptly,

emove from the old bed of said creek on their respective lands all obstructions to the natural flow of the water down and through [Bridge 110], and [directed they] shall not further or hereafter permit upon their respective properties such conditions of obstruction to exist[ ] and [shall] take such steps and perform such acts as will in a proper manner provide against the further or future diversion from its natural channel [under Bridge 110].

Id. at *3. We affirmed the district court's decision, but modified it to allow CRI&P and the owner of the land south of the bridge ninety days to remove the obstructions to the free flow of water through their properties. Lynch, 163 Iowa at 289-90, 143 N.W. at 1086.

         2. 1922 covenant restriction.

         In 1922, Lynch-the owner of land situated northwest of the railroad's right-of-way-conveyed land to CRI&P to be used for the fortification of the dike directing water under the railroad's bridge. The deed from Lynch to CRI&P included the following conditional language:

This Deed made on the further condition that [CRI&P] will at all times protect and compensate the Grantor, M.F. Lynch, his heirs, executors, administrators and assigns for failure to reasonably maintain a channel of sufficient capacity to give free flow to the water under the ordinary conditions, and to be of no less capacity than the channel of Whiskey Hollow Creek immediately above and below where said Creek channel enters and leaves the property of [CRI&P].
CRI&P maintained the course of Whiskey Creek under Bridge 110 for several decades thereafter by maintaining the dike that turned the flow south and under the bridge, raising the elevation of the rails, and repeatedly dredging the creek bed southeast of Bridge 110. The dike occasionally ruptured, however, and in 1973, CRI&P stopped repairing it.

         3. 1976 judgment.

         Another lawsuit-cause no. 14926-was commenced in 1973. The plaintiffs, the Downers and the Baars, who owned property northwest of Bridge 110 sued Dutton, the owner of land on the north and south side of the railroad right-of-way. The plaintiffs alleged Dutton had built a dike south of Bridge 110 and redirected the flow of Whiskey Creek across Dutton's land to the east, instead of to the south. This redirection of the creek, the plaintiffs alleged, caused the railroad's dike to fail, the former creek bed south of Bridge 110 to again fill with sand and silt, and the plaintiffs' land to flood. The Downers and the Baars sought damages for the flooding and a permanent injunction precluding Dutton's further obstruction of the natural flow of the creek south of Bridge 110. CRI&P intervened in the action, asserting its own claim for damages and injunctive relief against Dutton for causing Whiskey Creek to back up and damage the dike. The Downers and the Baars then added a claim for injunctive relief mandating that CRI&P maintain the dike and later added the drainage district as a defendant, seeking injunctive relief against that entity as well.

         In late 1976, the district court issued its findings of fact and conclusions of law. The court concluded the railroad's right-of-way impeded the natural flow of water to the south and east according to the laws of gravitation, and instead redirected it to the north and east along the right-of-way. The court determined the railroad, by constructing an elevated right-of-way, assumed an obligation "not to obstruct the free passage of surface water." This obligation, the court concluded, requires a passageway that is "reasonably sufficient for the passage of water[, ] taking into consideration" that "[t]he creek has always carried silt, sand, mud, trees, stumps and limbs" and "has always had a tendency to fill with silt and sand." The court further concluded CRI&P had a duty to construct opportunities at reasonable intervals for the water to cross its right-of-way, meaning "more bridges [may be] required."[6] Noting that Lynch, the Downers' and Baars' predecessor-in-interest, had conveyed real estate to CRI&P on the condition it be used for the construction of a dike, the court concluded the plaintiffs were "entitled to an injunction against CRI&P restraining it from continuing to allow the flowage of Whiskey Creek upon ...

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