This weekend, as you enjoy your morning cup of coffee and find yourself wondering what’s the news in our court system, look no further than this blog post. Every now and then there’s a new court opinion related to agricultural law that peaks our interest and makes us want to share a summary of what happened. This week we read cases about the federal Takings Clause, wind energy, and oil and gas rights. Here are the stories:
- A property owner may bring a claim in federal court under the Fifth Amendment when the government has violated the Takings Clause by taking property without just compensation. This case involved a township ordinance requiring all cemeteries to be held open and accessible to the general public during daylight hours. A property owner with a small family graveyard was notified that she was violating the ordinance. The property owner filed suit in state court arguing that the ordinance constituted a taking of her property, but did not seek compensation. The township responded by saying it would withdraw the notice of violation and not enforce the ordinance against her. The state court said that the matter was therefore resolved, but the property owner was not satisfied with that decision. She decided to bring a takings claim in federal court.
Before this decision, there was a roadblock to bringing such claim. Lower courts had read a previous Supreme Court decision to say that if a state or local government commits a taking, the property owner would first have to seek a remedy through the state’s adverse condemnation procedure before going to federal court. But in doing so, the property owner would actually not have a chance to bring the claim in federal court because the federal court would have to give full faith and credit to the state court decision. At first, that seemed like what would happen to the property owner because the state court had decided that the issue was moot since the township had agreed not to enforce the ordinance against her. But the U.S. Supreme Court cleared the way for the property owner by taking the rare action of overruling its prior precedent. Knick v. Township of Scott, Pennsylvania, was not an Ohio court case, but rather one that made its way all the way up to the U.S. Supreme Court. To read the case, click HERE.
The final opinion handed down by the justices is certainly important, but it is also notable for Ohio because the Ohio Farm Bureau Federation (OFBF) submitted an amicus brief in support of the property owner through its legal counsel, Vorys Sater Seymour and Pease, LLP of Columbus. The brief cited examples in Ohio showing that the Supreme Court’s prior precedent was causing problems for Ohio property owners by limiting their access to federal courts in Fifth Amendment takings claims. OFBF has noted that this was the first time it had submitted an amicus brief to the U.S. Supreme Court.
- Ohio Power Siting Board’s approval of new wind-turbine models in facility’s certificate does not constitute an amendment to the certificate for the purposes of triggering current turbine-setback requirements. In 2014, the Ohio Power Siting Board approved an application by Greenwich Windpark to construct a wind farm in Huron County with up to 25 wind turbines. In the initial application, all of the wind turbines would have used the same model of turbine. Just over a year after the application was approved, the wind farm developer applied for an amendment to add three additional models to the approved wind turbine model list, noting that the technology had advanced since its initial application. Two of the three newer models would be larger than the originally planned model, but would occupy the same locations and would comply with the minimum setback requirements at the time the application was approved.
The issue involved whether the new setback requirements, which were put in place by the state between the initial approval and the requested change, should apply. An amendment to a certificate would trigger the current wind turbine setback requirements. Greenwich Windpark wanted the less restrictive setback requirements in their initial application to still apply to the newer models, but a local group wanted the more restrictive setback requirements to apply. The Ohio Power Siting Board said that adding the new wind turbine models would not be an amendment, and would not trigger the more restrictive setbacks. The Ohio Supreme Court sided with the Ohio Power Siting Board, explaining that the Ohio General Assembly wanted the Ohio Power Siting Board to have broad authority to regulate wind turbines. This case is cited as In re Application of 6011 Greenwich Winkpark, L.L.C., 2019-Ohio-2406, and is available to read on the Ohio Supreme Court’s website HERE.
- Children claiming to be heirs of reserved oil and gas rights are in privity with previous owners of the interest when connected by an auditor’s deed specifically mentioning those interests. The issue was whether children claiming their father’s oil and gas interests were blocked by the legal doctrine of issue preclusion from obtaining clear title to their interest when a previous Ohio Dormant Mineral Act (ODMA) lawsuit quieted title to mineral interests underlying their claim. This preclusion would be possible because the previous owners’ interests formed the basis of the father’s interest. Even though they were not named in the previous ODMA lawsuit, by virtue of being in privity, or legally connected, to the previous owners, the children would be bound by the previous lawsuit because the ODMA lawsuit cleared the previous owners’ interests along with any interests in their successors and assigns. Ultimately the court found that because the children stood in their father’s shoes, and his claim would be linked to the previous owners’ claims in the land, the previous ODMA lawsuit binds the children. This had the effect of eliminating the children’s claims in the oil and gas rights. This case is cited as Winland v. Christman, 2019-Ohio-2408 (7th Dist.), and is available to read on the Ohio Supreme Court’s website HERE.
Written by: Ellen Essman, Law Fellow, OSU Agricultural & Resource Law Program
The Board of Trustees of the Des Moines Water Works (DMWW) brought a lawsuit against thirteen Iowa drainage districts. DMWW is the biggest water provider in Iowa, serving the largest city, Des Moines, and the surrounding area. Drainage districts were first created in Iowa in the 1800s to drain wetlands and allow for agriculture in those areas. In Iowa, the counties are in charge of drainage districts. Individual landowners can tile their land so that it drains water to the ditches, pipes, etc. that make up the counties’ drainage districts. Eventually, that water ends up in Iowa’s rivers. The thirteen drainage districts being sued by DMWW are located in the Raccoon River watershed in Buena Vista, Sac, and Calhoun counties. DMWW is located downstream from the drainage districts in question.
Background of the Lawsuit
On March 16, 2015, the Board of Trustees for the DMWW filed a complaint against the thirteen drainage districts in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Iowa, Western Division. DMWW alleged that the drainage districts did not act in accordance with the federal Clean Water Act (CWA) and provisions of the Iowa Code because they did not secure the applicable permits to discharge nitrates into the Raccoon River. In order to serve its customers, DMWW uses the Raccoon River as part of its water supply.
DMWW has to meet maximum contaminant levels prescribed under the federal Safe Drinking Water Act. Nitrate is a contaminant with a maximum allowable level of 10 mg/L. In its complaint, DMWW cited record levels of nitrate in water from the Raccoon River watershed in recent years. DMWW alleged that the nitrate problem is exacerbated by the “artificial subsurface drainage system infrastructure…created, managed, maintained, owned and operated by” the thirteen drainage districts. DMWW alleged that the drainage district infrastructure—“pipes, ditches, and other conduits”—are point sources. DMWW points to agriculture—row crops, livestock production, and spreading of manure, as a major source of nitrate pollution.
DMWW also cited a number of costs associated with dealing with nitrates, including the construction of facilities that remove nitrates, the operation of those facilities, and the cost associated with acquiring permits to discharge the removed waste. In their complaint, they generally asked the court to make the drainage districts reimburse them for their cleanup costs, and to make the drainage districts stop discharging pollutants without permits.
All together, DMWW filed ten counts against the drainage districts. In addition to their claim that the drainage districts had violated the CWA and similarly, Iowa’s Chapter 455B, DMWW also alleged that the continued nitrate pollution violated a number of other state and federal laws. DMWW maintained that the pollution was a public, statutory, and private nuisance, trespassing, negligence, a taking without just compensation, and a violation of due process and equal protection under the U.S. and Iowa Constitutions. Finally, DMWW sought injunctive relief from the court to enjoin the drainage districts to lessen the amount of nitrates in the water. In many of the counts, DMWW asked the court for damages to reimburse them for their costs of dealing with the pollution.
On May 22, 2015, the defendants, the thirteen drainage districts, filed their amended answer with the court. On January 11, 2016, the district court filed an order certifying questions to the Iowa Supreme Court. In other words, the district court judge submitted four questions of state law to the Iowa Supreme Court to be answered before commencing the federal trial. The idea behind this move was that the highest court in Iowa would be better equipped to answer questions of state law than the district court.
Iowa Supreme Court Decision
The Iowa Supreme Court filed its opinion containing the answers to the four state law questions on January 27, 2017. All of the questions were decided in favor of the drainage districts. The court answered two questions related to whether the drainage districts had unqualified immunity (complete protection) from the money damages and equitable remedies (actions ordered by the court to be taken or avoided in order to make amends for the harm caused) requested by DMWW. Both were answered in the affirmative—the court said that Iowa legislation and court decisions have, throughout history, given drainage districts immunity. Iowa law has long found the service drainage districts provide—draining swampy land so that it could be farmed—to be of great value to the citizens of the state. To that end, the law has been “liberally construed” to promote the actions of drainage districts. What is more, judicial precedent in the state has repeatedly found that drainage districts are not entities that can be sued for money damages because they are not corporations, and they have such a limited purpose—to drain land and provide upkeep for that drainage. The law has further prohibited receiving injunctive relief (obtaining a court order to require an action to be taken or stopped), from drainage districts. Instead, the only remedy available to those “claim[ing] that a drainage district is violating a duty imposed by an Iowa statute” is mandamus. Mandamus allows the court to compel a party to carry out actions that are required by the law. In this case, those requirements would be draining land and the upkeep of the drainage system.
The second two questions considered by the court dealt with the Iowa Constitution. The court determined whether or not DMWW could claim the constitutional protections of due process, equal protection, and takings. They also answered whether DMWW’s property interest in the water could even be “the subject of a claim under...[the] takings clause.” The court answered “no” to both questions, and therefore against DMWW. Their reasoning was that both DMWW and the drainage districts are subdivisions of state government, and based on numerous decisions in Iowa courts, “one subdivision of state government cannot sue another…under these clauses.” Additionally, the court found that “political subdivisions, as creatures of statute, cannot sue to challenge the constitutionality of state statutes.” Consequently, they reasoned that the pollution of the water and the resulting need to remove that pollution did “not amount to a constitutional violation” under Iowa law. The court also found that since the water in question was not private property, the takings claim was not valid. A takings claim only applies to when the government takes private property. What is more, the court added that regardless of its status as a public or private body, DMWW was not actually deprived of any property—they still had the ability to use the water. Therefore, the Iowa Supreme Court answered all four state law questions in the drainage districts’ favor, and against DMWW.
The Iowa Supreme Court found that the questions of state law favored the drainage districts, but that is not necessarily the end of this lawsuit. Now that the questions of state law are answered, the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Iowa, Western Division, can decide the questions of federal law. If any of the numerous motions for summary judgment are not granted to the drainage districts, a trial to decide the remaining questions is set for June 26, 2017. The questions left for the district court to decide include a number of U.S. Constitutional issues.
One of these issues is whether the drainage districts’ discharge of nitrates into the water constitutes a “taking” of DMWW’s private property for a public use under the Fifth and Fourteenth Amendments. Another issue is whether the drainage districts’ state-given immunity infringes upon DMWW’s constitutional rights of due process, equal protection, and just compensation. An important federal law question that also remains to be decided is whether the drainage districts are “point sources” that require a permit to discharge pollutants under the CWA.
How will the outcome affect other states?
Either outcome in this lawsuit will have implications for the rest of the country. For example, if the district court sides with DMWW on all of the questions, it could open the floodgates to potential lawsuits against drainage districts and other similar entities around the country for polluting water. Municipal and other users of the water could assert an infringement of their constitutional rights, including taking without just compensation. Furthermore, if drainage districts are found to be “point sources,” it could mean greater costs of permitting and cleanup for drainage districts and other state drainage entities. Those costs and additional regulations could be passed onto farmers within the watershed. As a result, farmers and water suppliers around the country will closely follow the district court’s decisions on the remaining questions in the case.
All of the court documents and decisions concerning this lawsuit, as well as additional articles and blog posts on the topic can be found here. Additional reading on the subject from the Des Moines Register can be found here and here.
Litigation that arose from a drainage improvement project completed in 2002 has finally ended with a decision by the Ohio Supreme Court. The court announced today that it will not accept the case for review, which allows the ruling by the Third District Court of Appeals in favor of the Henry County Engineer to remain in place.
Richard and Rodney Rohrs sued the county engineer and several staff members in 2005 after a drainage project completed by the county flooded several acres of a farm field the Rohrs had rented from Gerald Westhoven. In the late 1990s, Westhoven approached the Henry County Engineer about flooding problems on Westhoven's farm and the possibility of cleaning out the open drainage ditch that ran between his land and the county road. The engineer proposed an alternative solution, to lay drainage tiles and fill the ditch, and offered to classify the work as a road safety improvement project to be handled through the engineer's budget rather than through the petition ditch process that would result in assessments on property owners.
The county engineer installed the new drainage system in 2002. Westhoven entered into a lease for the land with the Rohrs in the Spring of 2003. The Rohrs planted a tomato crop on the parcel; by July, part of the field was under water. After the harvest season, the county engineer and Westhoven attempted to locate a drainage tile that could be the source of the flooding but they could not find any tile in the flooded area. The county then installed a new catch basin near Westhoven's property to resolve the flooding problem, with plans to tie in any field tile that Westhoven might later discover on his land. The Rohrs continued to lease the farmland from Westhoven.
According to witness testimony, the cause of the 2003 flooding was a drainage tile and catch basin just south of Westhoven's property that had been cut off during construction of the road improvement project drainage system; the engineer's staff had filled the tile and catch basin because it did not appear to be a functioning tile and did not exist on any of the county's plans. Excavation on the Westhoven property several years later revealed a drainage tile located just 15 feet from the filled tile and catch basin. The newly discovered tile, which Westhoven had not previously reported to the engineer, had a seed bag stuffed into its outlet, which was near the filled catch basin. The Rohrs claimed that the engineer's staff had intentionally stuffed the seed bag into the functioning tile, while the engineer's staff claimed they did not know about the tile. The county surmised that the seed bag had been used in the previous filling of the tile and catch basin that they had believed to be non-functioning.
The Rohrs sought $70,000 for losses to their 2003 tomato crop as a result of the flooding. Their legal causes of action included several tort claims and violations of federal and state due process rights. They also asked the court for a writ of mandamus to order the county to compensate them for a partial "taking" of their property by the county engineer. The Henry County Court of Common Pleas, after seven years of litigation, rejected each of the Rohrs' claims.
The Rohrs appealed with no avail to the Third District Court of Appeals. The appellate court agreed with the trial court's conclusion that state law prevented tort liability for the flooding because the county was entitled to governmental immunity under Ohio Revised Code 2744.02(A)(1) i. The court stated that the Rohrs had failed to prove that any of the law's exceptions to governmental immunity applied to the situation. In response to the Rohrs' argument that the county had committed a partial "taking" of property, the appeals court agreed with the trial court that a "taking" had not occurred for three reasons: because the flooding was accidental and incidental rather than an intentional taking of property, because the alleged taking was not for a public use as required by the Constitution and because the Rohrs had other remedies for their harm, such as a tort claim against Westhoven and the failed tort claims against the county engineer. As such other remedies were available, the court also agreed with the trial court that the Rohrs failed to prove violations of their due process rights.
In their request for a review by the Ohio Supreme Court, the Rohrs focused on the lower courts' conclusions that a "taking" had not occurred. The Henry County Farm Bureau and the Ohio Farm Bureau filed a brief in support of the Rohrs, urging the Supreme Court to accept the case and review the takings issue. The Court today declined to accept the case by a vote of 5--2 with Justices Paul Pfeifer and Judith French dissenting. Without a review by the Ohio Supreme Court, the appellate court decision stands as the final resolution of the case.
The decision of the Third District Court of Appeals in State ex rel. Rohrs v. Germann is available here.