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Thorson v. Hansen

Court of Appeals of Iowa

September 11, 2019

DEAN THORSON, Plaintiff-Appellee,
THOMAS HANSEN and JEANETT HANSEN, Defendant-Appellants.

          Appeal from the Iowa District Court for Winneshiek County, Linda M. Fangman, Judge.

         Defendants appeal an order and judgment against them.

          Erik W. Fern of Berry Law Firm, Lincoln, Nebraska, and Andrew J. Casper of Putnam & Thompson Law Office, P.L.L.C, Decorah, for appellants.

          James A. Garrett of James Garrett Law Office, Waukon, for appellee.

          Considered by Mullins, P.J., Bower, J., and Vogel, S.J. [*]

          Bower, Judge.

         Thomas and Jeanett Hansen appeal a trial court order finding in favor of Dean Thorson in a conversion and breach-of-contract action concerning a hay crop and farm-rental agreement. The Hansens claim the trial court erred in denying their motion for new trial because Thorson made knowing material misrepresentations during trial that prejudiced the Hansens and by making a mistake of fact and law as to the date of conversion. We find the court did not abuse its discretion in denying the motion for new trial and did not make a mistake of fact or law. We affirm.

         I. Background Facts & Proceedings

         The Hansens own a farm in northeast Iowa. Thorson has worked in various capacities on the Hansens' farm since the 1990s. Until 2009, Thorson primarily cash rented the Hansens' land. Beginning in 2009, Thorson leased agricultural land from the Hansens under a variety of oral rental agreements. The fields leased or otherwise farmed through the parties' association were commonly known as the North 40, South 31, East 40, and West 16. With respect to the acres farmed under crop-share agreements, where the parties divided the crop after harvest instead of Thorson paying rent, Thorson was obligated to apply fertilizer and nutrients to maintain the soil for the future. The acres subject to custom farm agreements- where the Hansens paid Thorson for his labor and retained the entire harvested crop-obligated the Hansens to fertilize the land.

         In 2009, the Hansens began converting their farm to produce organic crops. Until 2011, the Hansens had a contract to grow organic peas for Sno Pac Foods (Sno Pac). After a conflict between the Hansens and Sno Pac, Thorson included some of the Hansens' land in his own contracts with Sno Pac. Thorson took over the organic-certification work for the Hansens' land.

         In 2012, the parties had a crop-share agreement for hay grown in the East 40 field. After the second[1] cutting and baling of hay, Thorson left the large round bales of hay on the Hansens' land. The Hansens moved all the bales from the field to a shed, though the number of bales was in dispute. Thorson was told he could get them when he wanted. In November, he asked for his half of the bales from the second cutting; the Hansens advised Thorson they were keeping the bales. Thorson asked again for the bales in late April 2013 to feed his cattle and was again refused. Thorson did not purchase hay but instead resorted to foraging his cattle on an already-planted field. In the summer of 2013, the Hansens and Thorson had an argument about the 2012 hay with Thorson indicating he considered it stolen. Although the parties discussed Thorson recouping the hay from the 2013 or 2014 crops, Thorson did not get his hay.

         For the 2015 growing season, the parties contracted for hay and an oat-hay mixture to be grown and harvested on the North 40 and East 40 fields, with the crops to be divided evenly. A crop-share arrangement for organic corn was agreed to on the South 31. Finally, the Hansens hired Thorson to prep the West 16 to grow organic peas for Sno Pac. The parties knew Sno Pac might not accept the Hansens' land in Thorson's contract for 2015. Thorson testified they reached a contingent agreement by which he could seed the field with grass and oats for pasturing because he had applied nutrients to the field; Jeanett testified no agreement was reached because she had not decided what to do with the field if no peas were planted.

         In the spring of 2015, the relationship between Thorson and the Hansens imploded. Sno Pac's internal policies had changed for the 2015 planting, requiring the company to contract directly with property owners. Sno Pac did not opt to contract with the Hansens but maintained its contract with Thorson. Thorson knew by March 11 when he signed his own contract with Sno Pac that Sno Pac would not include the Hansens' land, and he left the Hansens a voice mail informing them their land was not included in his contract. In April, Thorson seeded the East 40 with oat hay. Around April 19, Thomas informed Thorson during a phone call that they had found someone else to plant the West 16 and cut hay and spread manure on the North 40. Thorson argued that was not the deal they had made and, after Thomas said they were contracting with the other farmer, Thorson said "Fine, that's it then." Thorson considered this telephone call to constitute the Hansens' termination of their contracts as to all the fields.

         A couple days after the phone call, Thorson sent a document to the Hansens he considered to be a bill for what the Hansens owed him. The document listed the inputs for fertilizer and seed applied to the Hansens' fields and listed seventy bales of hay valued at $300 per bale. The Hansens repeatedly called and sent letters in May and June to Thorson asking if he was terminating their contracts or if he intended to continue to work on their farm. Thorson did not answer the ten phone calls or open the first three letters, only opening the final letter on June 13. In the June 13 letter, the Hansens stated Thorson's failure to answer previous inquiries as requested was deemed to be a termination of their contract and told Thorson not to enter their property "at any time for any reason."

         In March 2016, Thorson filed suit against the Hansens, claiming conversion for the 2012 hay and breach of contract relating to the leasing arrangement. Thorson claimed damages for the value of the hay converted[2] and the cost of the fertilizer, nutrients, and seed the Hansens benefited from due to the lease termination. Thorson requested a total recovery of $36, 171.22. The Hansens answered, denying the conversion claim and claiming Thorson unilaterally terminated the rental agreement. The Hansens also counterclaimed, asserting Thorson breached the contract to prepare ...

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