Complaint Regarding Crossing Statute Must First Be Heard By Administrative Agency

June 7, 2013 | Erika Eckley

When an administrative procedure and remedy is statutorily provided, litigants must exhaust their administrative remedies before the state courts have jurisdiction to hear the complaint. In the following Iowa case, a landowner who did not agree with the placement of electrical transmission lines tried to bypass the Iowa Utilities Board’s adjudicative process by filing suit directly in state court.  It didn’t work. 

The plaintiff is an Iowa landowner and the defendant is an indirect subsidiary of a public utility. The defendant was building a sixty-aerogenerator wind power station with the power generated to be transmitted through underground transmission lines. The defendant sought to negotiate easements with the plaintiff for these lines. After negotiations failed, the defendant utilized Iowa Code § 476.27(the crossing statute) to begin the procedure for crossing a railroad right-of-way. After receiving notice that the defendant sought to utilize the statutory procedure, the plaintiff obtained an ex parte injunction against the defendant to prevent construction. A few weeks later, the court dissolved the injunction and declined to rule the statute unconstitutional at that stage of the litigation.

After the injunction was lifted, the defendant moved to dismiss the case because the plaintiff didn’t first take the dispute to the Iowa Utilities Board and go through their administrative process.  The district court agreed and dismissed the case. The plaintiff appealed, arguing that no administrative remedies applied.

The sole issue on appeal was whether administrative procedures were required. The court disagreed with the plaintiff that an administrative remedy must exist for the claimed wrong. The plaintiff argued that by allowing the defendant to utilize the crossing statute violated the plaintiff’s constitutional rights, which cannot be enforced by the Utilities Board. The court held that the statute “clearly la[id] out the standard administrative law procedure whereby appeal to the district court is only appropriate after a disposition at the agency level.” These rules provide for discovery and hearing procedures to address the plaintiff’s claims.

Because an administrative remedy existed, the failure of the plaintiff to utilize the process first meant the court did not have authority to resolve the dispute.  Hawkeye Land Co. v. Franklin County Wind, LLC, No. 3-374/12-1568, 2013 Iowa App. LEXIS 622 (Iowa Ct. App. May 30, 2013).