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Honomichl v. Valley View Swine, LLC

Supreme Court of Iowa

June 22, 2018

MORGAN HONOMICHL, ROBIN HONOMICHL, TIMOTHY HONOMICHL, DEB CHANCE, KARA CHANCE, KAREN JO FRESCOLN, MIKE MERRILL, and Q.H., Appellee,
v.
VALLEY VIEW SWINE, LLC and JBS LIVE PORK, LLC, Appellants.

          Appeal from the Iowa District Court for Wapello County, Annette J. Scieszinski, Judge.

         Defendants appeal the district court ruling on various motions, including their motion for summary judgment, which denied their statutory immunity defense under Iowa Code section 657.11(2) based on a finding by the district court that the statute was unconstitutional as applied.

          William H. Roemerman and Gerald T. Sullivan of Elderkin & Pirnie, PLC, Cedar Rapids, for appellant Valley View Swine, LLC.

          Jacob D. Bylund, Scott L. Halbur, Shannon L. Sole, and Ryan P. Howell of Faegre Baker Daniels LLP, Des Moines, for appellant, JBS Live Port, LLC.

          Jennifer H. De Kock, Steven P. Wandro, and Kara M. Simons of Wandro & Associates, P.C., Des Moines, and David E. Sykes, Fairfield, for appellees.

          Thomas W. Lipps of Peterson & Lipps, Algona, and David J. Stein Jr. (until withdrawal) of Stein Law Office, Milford, for amicus curiae Iowa Association for Justice.

          Eldon L. McAfee and Julia L. Vyskocil of Brick Gentry, P.C., West Des Moines, for amici curiae Iowa Pork Producers Association and Iowa Farm Bureau Federation.

          ZAGER, Justice.

         The plaintiffs are the owners and/or residents of real estate located near the confined animal feeding operations (CAFOs) owned and operated by the defendants. The plaintiffs have brought suit against the defendants, claiming the defendants are negligent in their operation of the CAFOs. The plaintiffs also contend the CAFOs constitute a nuisance that 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 defendants filed a motion for summary judgment on the nuisance claims alleging Iowa Code section 657.11(2) (2016) bars such claims since the plaintiffs cannot meet the requirements necessary under the statute to recover the requested special damages against the CAFOs. Meanwhile, the plaintiffs sought partial summary judgment to strike the defendants' statutory immunity defense under section 657.11(2).

         The district court denied the defendants' motion for summary judgment and granted the plaintiffs' motion for partial summary judgment. In doing so, the district court found section 657.11(2) was unconstitutional as applied to the plaintiffs under article I, section 1 of the Iowa Constitution because it denies plaintiffs access to a remedy for their alleged injuries. The defendants filed an application for interlocutory appeal and stay, arguing the district court erred in granting plaintiffs' motion for partial summary judgment by finding that section 657.11(2) was unconstitutional as applied to the plaintiffs. We granted the application for interlocutory appeal and stay and retained the appeal.

         We now reverse the district court ruling granting the plaintiffs' motion for partial summary judgment. Specifically, the district court found that section 657.11(2), as applied to the plaintiffs in this case, violated article I, section 1. However, the district court did so without making specific findings of fact relative to any plaintiff. Without this fact-based analysis, we are unable to resolve this issue on this record. We therefore reverse and remand the case to the district court for further proceedings consistent with this opinion.

         I. Background Facts and Proceedings.

         This case centers around two CAFOs located in Wapello County, Iowa, which are known as Valley View Site 1 (Site 1) and Valley View Site 2 (Site 2). Defendant Valley View Swine, LLC, is a limited liability company organized under the laws of the State of Iowa that has three members: Nicholas Adam, Shawn Adam, and Jeffrey Adam. In 2013, Valley View Swine entered into discussions with defendant JBS Live Pork, LLC, (JBS)- then operating as Cargill Pork-to establish CAFOs at Site 1 and Site 2. JBS is authorized to contract with Iowa swine producers for the care and feeding of JBS-owned swine pursuant to a consent decree filed on January 19, 2006, between the State of Iowa and Cargill Pork, LLC, which transferred its ownership to the company that now goes by JBS Live Pork, LLC.

         In April 2013, the Iowa Department of Natural Resources (DNR) issued Valley View Swine construction permits to implement CAFOs on Site 1 and Site 2 in accordance with Iowa DNR rules and regulations. These rules and regulations required Valley View Swine to meet certain conditions and requirements both during and following construction. Some of these conditions and requirements included implementing an approved manure management plan and following proper waste management procedures to protect soil and waterways. Construction on these sites was also required to comply with all local, state, and federal requirements applicable to CAFOs. These requirements included the need to maintain the minimum separation distances between the CAFOs and "residence[s] not owned by the owner of the confinement feeding operation" or a commercial enterprise, bona fide religious institution, or an educational institution" under Iowa Code section 459.202. Iowa Code § 459.202.

         Valley View Swine complied with the applicable setback distances in constructing the CAFOs. At the time of construction in 2013, the necessary setback distance between the CAFOs and the residences at issue was .36 miles or 1875 feet. Id. § 459.202(b) (2013). The closest plaintiffs to Site 1, the Honomichls, live .67 miles from Site 1. The Honomichls are also the closest plaintiffs living near Site 2, residing .72 miles from Site 2. The Chances live .70 miles from Site 1 and 2.0 miles from Site 2. Karen Jo Frescoln lives in Libertyville, Iowa, nearly ten miles from the closest CAFO at issue. However, she is a party to this suit since she owns property on which her daughter resides that is .96 miles from Site 1 and 2.35 miles from Site 2.

         On August 1, 2013, near the completion of the construction, Valley View Swine and JBS entered into hog-feeding agreements for Valley View Swine to raise and care for JBS-owned hogs at Site 1 and Site 2. JBS agreed to pay Valley View Swine $3.3334 for each of the 9920 pig spaces on the combined Site 1 and Site 2. This provides Valley View Swine with annual payments exceeding $396, 000. Pursuant to the agreements, Valley View Swine is required to "comply with all local, state, and federal laws, regulations, permits, and orders" pertaining to the agreements. Moreover, Valley View Swine must uphold the JBS Swine Welfare Policy and allow JBS to conduct periodic audits. This includes abiding by the JBS Wean-to-Finish Manual detailing the necessary procedures Valley View Swine must follow for biosecurity, preplacement, pig care and management, feed and water management, health, barn environment, safety, waste management, and maintenance of the CAFOs.

         To fulfill these agreements, Valley View Swine contracts with a third-party barn manager, Brandon Warren, who works as an independent contractor to manage the operation of the CAFOs. Since Valley View Swine commenced operation of the CAFOs, the Iowa DNR has not found Valley View Swine to be in violation of any statute or regulation governing its operations. The JBS periodic audits have likewise not found Valley View Swine in violation of any applicable statutes or regulations.

         In the same month that the defendants entered into their hog feeding agreements, the Iowa DNR authorized the use of Site 1 and Site 2 to serve as CAFOs, finding they were both constructed in accordance with the Iowa DNR requirements. Site 1 began operation that month, and Site 2 followed suit in September. In November, seventy individuals, including the current plaintiffs, filed a lawsuit against Valley View Swine, the Adams, Cargill Pork (now JBS), Tri-L Farms, Inc., Larry Hickenbottom, Josh Hickenbottom, and Richard Warren. The petition alleged negligence and temporary nuisance based on the odors, pathogens, and flies they alleged stem from the CAFOs, as well as defendants' alleged failure to use prudent management practices to reduce these odors, pathogens, and flies. However, the plaintiffs failed to fulfill the mediation requirement established in Iowa Code section 657.10 before they filed their petition, and the district court dismissed the case on January 2, 2014.

         On April 2, sixty-nine plaintiffs, including the current plaintiffs, refiled the suit making the same claims against the same defendants. In September, the district court severed the case into three divisions- classified as Divisions A, B, and C-based upon the various plaintiffs' allegations against the different defendant groups. From those sixty-nine plaintiffs, Deb Chance, Jason Chance, Kara Chance, Karen Jo Frescoln, Robin Honomichl, Timothy Honomichl, Morgan Honomichl, Q.H., C.H., and Mike Merrill were among those placed in Division A, which is the only division at issue in this case. Division A plaintiffs brought their claims against Valley View Swine, the Adams, and Cargill Pork (JBS). The district court joined all of the divisions for discovery purposes.

         On September 30, Division A plaintiffs filed an amended petition and jury demand on behalf of all original sixty-nine plaintiffs claiming temporary nuisance, permanent nuisance, and negligence against Division A defendants due to the odors, pathogens, and flies that allegedly emanate from the CAFOs. The Division A defendants filed an answer, which invoked section 657.11(2) as an affirmative defense, alleging the plaintiffs could not meet the requirements under the statute to recover their requested damages. In October, the district court implemented a bellwether procedure, allowing the plaintiffs and defendants to each select two plaintiff households in order for separate bellwether trials to occur in the different divisions. The bellwether plaintiffs include the plaintiffs in this case, as well as C.H. and Mike Merrill.

         Since 2013, plaintiffs' counsel have filed numerous nuisance suits against JBS involving large groups of plaintiffs. Plaintiffs' counsel have litigated these suits until shortly before trial, at which time the plaintiffs dismissed them. For example, Division A plaintiffs have filed four versions of their petition, eliminating plaintiffs along the way. C.H. was dismissed without prejudice in August 2015, and Mike Merrill dismissed his claims against the defendants in June 2016.

         Similarly, Division C plaintiffs eliminated twenty-six plaintiffs during the course of litigation, which included filing six petitions against Division C defendants prior to trial. Division B plaintiffs dismissed their suit in its entirety in November 2014. Following the dismissal of Division B, the district court consolidated Divisions A and C for discovery and deadline purposes with another group of fifteen plaintiffs suing JBS, among others, for negligence and nuisance in Poweshiek County. The district court ordered the Division C case to be tried first, followed by the Poweshiek County case and the Division A case.

         The defendants in all of the divisions filed a motion for summary judgment in their respective cases on October 6, 2015, maintaining section 657.11(2) provided them with statutory immunity against the plaintiffs' claims. On the same day, the plaintiffs in all of the divisions filed a motion for partial summary judgment in their respective cases, asking the court to strike the defendants' statutory immunity defense under section 657.11(2) by requesting the district court declare the statute unconstitutional as applied to them. The district court subsequently denied Division C defendants' summary dismissal of the temporary nuisance claims and granted Division C plaintiffs' motion for partial summary judgment on the statutory immunity defense, finding section 657.11(2) was unconstitutional as applied under the inalienable rights clause of article I, section 1 of the Iowa Constitution. The district court granted Division C defendants summary dismissal of all permanent nuisance claims.

         The Division C trial took place in February 2016, and the jury returned defense verdicts that found no nuisance on the properties of any of the plaintiffs. JBS subsequently filed a motion for costs and expenses, alleging three of the Division C plaintiffs filed frivolous claims under section 657.11(5). The district court held JBS raised a valid defense under section 657.11 that rendered the three plaintiffs' claims frivolous within the meaning of the statute. Therefore, the district court found each of the three plaintiffs was liable for his or her portion of the costs that JBS incurred while defending against the frivolous claims.

         In June 2016, the district court ruled on the summary judgment motions at issue in this case surrounding Division A. The district court denied Division A defendants' summary dismissal of the claims and granted Division A plaintiffs' motion for partial summary judgment, declaring section 657.11(2) is unconstitutional as applied to Division A plaintiffs under the inalienable rights clause of the Iowa Constitution. The district court granted summary dismissal of all permanent nuisance claims.

         In its ruling, the district court noted the statutory immunity established in section 657.11 "unduly burdens the plaintiffs by denying them access to a lawful remedy for their alleged injuries to the person and/or to property occasioned in [the] use of their real-estate interests." Consequently, the district court denied defendants "summary dismissal of the plaintiffs' claims on the basis of the immunity in the first sentence of section 657.11(2)." Further, the ruling stated,

There are no material facts in good-faith dispute that demonstrate that the plaintiffs suffer a disqualification from remedy under a premise that they, as individuals, benefit from the immunity statute greater than those in the general public who benefit from the immunity protection of Iowa Code section 657.11(2). JBS's Motion seeking summary dismissal of all claims for a disqualification ...

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