Supreme Court of Iowa Reverses Course on Right-to-Farm Rulings


Picture of hog snout by Alex Lafayette via University of Arkansas
Picture of hog snout by Alex Lafayette via University of Arkansas

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I like to discuss recent right-to-farm court rulings from across the country because it helps us better understand how those laws are applied in other states. Iowa has often been an outlier in right-to-farm decisions, based on a 2004 decision that had often been used to find the law unconstitutional as applied in many situations. The Supreme Court of Iowa recently overturned portions of that prior decision and changed the test of how to apply the state’s right-to-farm law. This decision will move Iowa closer to the rest of the country in how to interpret its right-to-farm law. The decision is in Garrison v. New Fashion Pork, LLP.

Background

This decision involves a hog farm, New Fashion Pork (NFP), developed in late 2015 near the neighbor's landowner, Garrison, who operated a sheep operation from the 1970s until 2018. In 2016, Garrison noticed that NFP’s manure application on one of its fields did not absorb the manure. For four years, Garrison documented the smells coming from the hog farm and estimated how the smell impacted his use and enjoyment of his property. In 2020, he brought a nuisance suit against the hog farm in state court, claiming that the odors from the farm had devalued his property and impacted his use and enjoyment of his property. He sued, claiming trespass and violation of state drainage laws due to the hog farm's over-applying manure which drained onto his property. The hog farm answered these claims by arguing that the state’s right-to-farm law barred the nuisance claim.

Garrison argued that raising the right-to-farm law defense was unconstitutional as applied. The district court ruled that the defense was not unconstitutional as applied to Garrison and barred his nuisance claims. Garrison appealed to the Supreme Court of Iowa.

Court’s Decision

On appeal, the court finds that the prior court decision, finding the state’s right-to-farm law unconstitutional, was wrongly decided. The court also found that the prior court decision has created difficulty in administering, and other decisions have since superseded it. In getting to this decision, the court highlights Iowa as the only state to take this view with its right-to-farm law. No state since the 2004 decision has followed it. The court cites several other states’ court decisions that have rejected the approach.

According to the court, the 2004 decision created a three-part test that should be overruled. The three-prong test required the plaintiff to prove:

  1. The neighbors received no particular benefit from the nuisance defense grant to the farms other than inuring to the public in general;

  2. That the plaintiff sustained a significant hardship; and

  3. The plaintiff resided on their property long before any animal operation began.


Images of hogs in confined operation by United Soybean Board
Images of hogs in confined operation by United Soybean Board

According to the 2004 decision, this three-prong test was required to prove an as-applied constitutional challenge to the inalienable rights clause of the Iowa constitution.

For those who need a refresher, an as-applied constitutional challenge is when a party brings a claim that a specific law or action is unconstitutional when applied in a particular situation. In this situation, the Iowa constitution provides that state residents have certain inalienable rights, including the right to possess and protect property. Neighboring landowners in Iowa have often argued that allowing the agricultural operation to continue impacts their inalienable right to possess and protect the neighbor’s property.

The court highlights that the three-prong test is difficult for lower courts to administer. A challenging part of the test, for example, was determining the first prong when the plaintiff benefitted from the right-to-farm law. The court eliminates the need to adjudicate this issue by eliminating the test. The court highlights that overturning the test reduces the cost of litigation by removing a duplicative trial.

Since the 2004 decision, the Supreme Court of Iowa has applied a rational basis test for challenges to social and regulatory statutes under the inalienable rights clause. A rational basis test is the regular test courts use to determine if a statute or regulation violates the constitution. With a rational basis test, the court determines if the law is rationally related to a legitimate government interest, real or hypothetical. This is a much lower standard than the court adopted in the 2004 decision. For all those reasons, the court overrules the 2004 decision.

In applying the rational basis test in this case, the court determines that the right-to-farm law is constitutional as applied against Garrison. The right-to-farm law did not eliminate all nuisance cases when a neighbor could collect damages, only in certain instances. For example, in cases where a neighbor could prove that the agricultural operation was unreasonable in its operation by failing to utilize generally accepted ag practices or in failing to comply with federal or state regulations or statutes, the neighbor would still be able to collect damages for nuisance. The court points out that the risk of litigation, primarily concentrated animal feeding operations, could prevent agricultural operations from obtaining finance from lenders. To offset this, the legislature can develop strategies to limit those costs.

The court also disagreed with Garrison’s arguments that common law rights were locked in when Iowa became a state. The legislature could abolish common law causes of action for legitimate purposes. For example, in the right-to-farm law, the legislature could develop a statute of repose. To the court, the common law is not frozen, and the legislature can modify it. Based on all this, the right-to-farm law survives a rational review, and the court affirms the lower court’s decision.

Why Care?

This decision marks a change in how Iowa will handle right-to-farm cases moving forward. The Supreme Court of Iowa had only a few years ago affirmed the 2004 decision in another case which you can read more about here. This decision puts Iowa now in line with the majority of states which have found their right-to-farm law to be constitutional. We will have to see how future challenges will be handled in the state, but for now, Iowa is moving closer to allowing this law to operate in the way the legislature intended.

References

Gacke v. Pork Xtra, L.L.C., 684 N.W.2d 168 (Iowa, 2004)

Garrison v. New Fashion Pork, LLP, No. 21-0652, 2022 WL 2347783 (Iowa, June 30, 2022).