Court of Appeals Finds State’s Right-to-Farm Law is Unconstitutional As Applied
Updated: Jul 1, 2020
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All fifty states have some version of a right-to-farm law, which provides defenses to agricultural producers for lawsuits alleging they are committing a nuisance in their farming operations. In November 2016, the Court of Appeals of Iowa upheld a lower court’s ruling that Iowa’s right-to-farm law is unconstitutional as applied to a neighbor claiming a nearby hog farm is a nuisance and awarded damages to the neighbor. For those unaware, finding a state’s right-to-law unconstitutional as applied to a neighbor is unique to Iowa. Iowa’s courts have found the state’s right-to-farm law is unconstitutional when the complaining neighbor was there first. At this point, no states have followed Iowa’s lead and found their state’s right-to-farm laws unconstitutional as applied to neighbors there first.
The McIlrath family bought their farm in 1971 and eventually gifted one-acre tracts to their son who built a home near his parents. Prestage Farms built a 2,496-confined hog facility nearby in 2012, some 2,200 feet from the original McIlraths’ family home.
In 2013, Mrs. McIlrath brought a nuisance lawsuit against the confined hog farm and sought damages. At the trial, McIlrath testified as to the smell of the hog farm when the wind blew from the southwest, how strong the odor was, and how often that sharp odor was around. Neighbors also testified as to the impact of the odor on their properties. Finally, she had the testimony and depositions of experts concerning the actions Prestage Farms could have taken to lessen the impact from odors.
Prestage Farms claimed that the Iowa right-to-farm law provided the farm immunity from the nuisance lawsuit. Prestage also had neighboring landowners who testified that the odor was not unreasonable or offensive. State officials also testified to demonstrate the farm was in compliance will applicable laws. Finally, experts testified Prestage Farms was omitting little gas and listed the types of the best management practices the farm was utilizing.
The trial court found that Iowa’s right-to-farm law was unconstitutional as applied in this case. The jury returned a verdict awarding damages close to $525,000 to McGrath, and found that Prestage Farms failed to use existing generally accepted, reasonable management practices. Prestage Farms appealed to the Court of Appeals of Iowa.
Iowa’s Right-to-Farm Law Unconstitutional As-Applied
Iowa’s right-to-farm law operates like that of other states. In Iowa, an animal feeding operation (Prestage Farms is one) cannot be found a public or private nuisance unless the farm failed to comply with federal or state law or regulation applying to the farm or both of the following:
The farm is unreasonable and for substantial periods of times interferes with a neighbor’s use, and
The farm failed to use existing prudent, generally accepted management practices reasonable for the farm.
If the farm meets the qualifications – not complying with all regulations, does interfere with a neighbor’s use, and not using generally accepted management practices – then it is not protected under Iowa’s right-to-farm law.
An earlier ruling by the Iowa Supreme Court (Gacke v. Pork Xtra, L.L.C.) held the state’s right-to-farm law could be unconstitutional when applied. In that case, the Iowa Supreme Court found property owners existing before the arrival of the farm had no remedy. These prior existing property owners bore the brunt of the nuisance created by the farm and received no real benefit. The situation would be different for someone coming in after the farm is established; that person could potentially purchase the property at a discount, take steps to mitigate the impact of the nuisance, or just not buy near the farm. In the view of the Iowa Supreme Court in that case, the right-to-farm law gives a farm operator the ability to use his/her property without any regard for the rights of neighbors. In Gacke, the Iowa Supreme Court found the law to be unconstitutional as applied to Gacke, but stated there might be situations when the right-to-farm law would be constitutional.
The Court of Appeals agreed that the right-to-farm law was unconstitutional as applied to Mrs. McIlrath. According to the court, the factual situation in this case and Gacke are very similar. Both cases had property owners who had lived on the property before the arrival of the confined animal facility, and thus, allowing the farm to continue as a nuisance would deprive property owners, like McIlrath, of a remedy and place the burden of the nuisance on them. The Court of Appeals refused to overturn the ruling of the trial court.
This case represents the second time an Iowa appellate court has ruled that the state’s right-to-farm law is unconstitutional as applied to a landowner existing before the complaint about the farming operation. At this time, there are no reported opinions of how this case would turn out if McIlrath moved in after the Prestage Farms had opened the confined hog farm. Iowa’s right-to-farm law may be constitutional as applied in that case. If an individual buys neighboring property after the confined hog farm opened, the new property owner would be aware of the nuisance before moving in and could have taken steps to mitigate the nuisance impact. The Iowa appellate courts have yet to consider this fact pattern.
No state court has yet followed the Iowa Supreme Court when presented with facts similar to Gacke. State courts have rejected the view that their states’ right-to-farm laws can be unconstitutional as applied to landowners existing before the farming operation is established. Maryland has no reported cases involving the right-to-farm law, so this is an unanswered question in Maryland at this time. With how Maryland’s right-to-farm law operates, requiring mediation before going to court, it seems unlikely a court would find the law unconstitutional as applied (but remember that is my guess, so it holds no true legal value).
To learn more about right-to-farm laws, check out Lori Lynch’s and my fact sheet giving an overview of Maryland’s law (http://go.umd.edu/MDRTF). You can also check out past right-to-farm-law posts here (http://go.umd.edu/RTFTag).
McIlrath v. Prestage Farms of Iowa, L.L.C., No. 15-1599, 2016 WL 6902328 (Iowa Ct. App. Nov. 23, 2016).
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