Court of Appeals Addresses Adjudication on the Merits in Two Cases

January 31, 2024 | Jennifer Harrington

The cases are US Bank v Langmaid et al, No. 23-0076 (Iowa Ct. App. Dec. 06, 2023) and Bro v Meling, No. 23-0883 (Iowa Ct. App. Jan. 10, 2023).

Recently the Court of Appeals released two opinions that discussed adjudication on the merits with agricultural related cases. The first case addressed a dismissal that resulted from failure to mediate prior to filing a foreclosure suit. The second case addressed a plaintiff re-filing a suit once an expert on water drainage was found after summary judgment was granted in a previously filed case. Both cases explain established court doctrine regarding refiling cases that were previously brought before a district court judge.

 US Bank v. Langmaid

Plaintiff filed a foreclosure suit against defendants. Defendants filed a pre-answer motion to dismiss alleging the property was agricultural and no attempt at mediation was done prior to the lawsuit. Iowa Code § 654.6(1)(a) requires farm mediation prior to the filing of a foreclosure action. The district court granted the motion and dismissed the lawsuit with prejudice under Iowa Court Rule 1.943 and 1.946. Plaintiff appealed, arguing the dismissal should be without prejudice.

The court of appeals reversed the district court and found that the dismissal of the lawsuit should have been without prejudice. Iowa Court Rule 1.943, titled “Voluntary Dismissal,” was inapplicable because the plaintiff did not voluntarily dismiss the case. Therefore, Iowa Rule 1.946 controls. Rule 1.946, titled “Effect of Dismissal,” states that dismissals are “adjudications on the merits” unless the dismissal was for lack of subject matter jurisdiction or improper venue. In this case, mediation was a “jurisdictional prerequisite[.]” The district court correctly determined it did not have subject matter jurisdiction until the mediation requirement was met. The resulting dismissal therefore met the subject matter jurisdiction exception found in Rule 1.946 and was not an adjudication on the merits . Therefore, the rule required the dismissal to be without prejudice. This gives the plaintiffs the opportunity to file again if mediation is not successful. 

Bro v. Meling

Plaintiff and Defendant are neighbors. In 2019, plaintiff filed a lawsuit against defendant alleging that the defendant had altered his land and changed the course of water drainage, ultimately causing flooding on plaintiff’s land. Defendant brough a summary judgment motion, after the discovery phase, when plaintiff did not produce expert testimony on the cause of the flooding. The district court found “that expert testimony is necessary to establish the essential element of causation.” The plaintiff did not designate an expert, and the court granted the motion for summary judgment.

The plaintiffs did not appeal the 2019 ruling. Instead, they refiled their lawsuit in 2022 after finding an expert who could testify to what caused the flooding. The defendant moved for summary judgment, arguing the doctrine of res judicata prevented the plaintiff from refiling the lawsuit. The district court agreed and granted summary judgment. The plaintiff appealed, arguing the first case was not a final judgment on the merits. Plaintiff argued the 2019 judgement “simply found that the [plaintiff] did not have an expert witness.”

The court of appeals affirmed the district court. A summary judgment is presumed to be “a final judgment on the merits[.]” When summary judgment is a result from “lack of any genuine issue of material fact going to the merits[,]” the doctrine of res judicata applies and prevents future lawsuits over the same issues or claims. In this instance, the 2019 court granted the summary judgment because the plaintiff failed to show an issue of material fact when they could not present evidence of what caused the flooding due to lack of expert testimony. The court of appeals noted that res judicata does not apply when a party does not have “a ‘full and fair opportunity’ to litigate a claim or issue.” The plaintiff had a full and fair opportunity in 2019 during the discovery period to find an expert to testify to causation in 2019, but chose not to do so and as a result could not show an issue of material fact in the prior lawsuit. Therefore, the plaintiff was barred from refiling the suit in 2022 after finding an expert because the 2019 lawsuit was a final judgment on the merits.