Iowa Court Grants Permanent Injunction for Interference with Easement

April 14, 2021 | Kitt Tovar Jensen

On April 14, 2021, the Iowa Court of Appeals issued a ruling regarding an interference with an easement. The plaintiff had a written easement over the neighboring property to access 40 acres of farmland. Because the defendant substantially interfered with the plaintiff’s easement rights, the court affirmed a permanent injunction entered by the lower court.

Background

The plaintiff owns farmland south of the defendant’s farm. Forty acres of the plaintiff’s land is inaccessible by large farm equipment except through a twenty-foot-wide easement on the defendant’s property. The previous owner of the defendant’s property had executed an easement to the plaintiff’s predecessor which is depicted in red below.

For many years, the plaintiff and defendant disagreed on where the plaintiff could enter the 40 acres. The defendant believed that the plaintiff must enter at the start of the easement. Due to the 90 degree turn at the easement entrance, the plaintiff found it impossible to manuever machinery through that entrance. The “preferred entry point” for the plaintiff was a pipe gate within the fence line that provided a much easier way to access the field. Former owners and tenants used either the pipe gate or temporarily cut the fence at a suitable location to enter the forty acres. In the early 1990s, the plaintiff attempted to lease the land to a farm tenant. The defendant spread manure on the easement, installed an electric fence across it, and even made verbal threats to the tenant. To avoid any more disputes with the defendant, the plaintiff enrolled the land in the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP).

The land remained in the CRP until 2017 when the plaintiff leased the land to another farm tenant. The following spring, the defendant placed wooden posts, various farm equipment, trailers, and logs along the easement at twenty-foot increments. This prevented the tenant from maneuving large equipment onto the easement opening. Due to these issues, the tenant declined to farm the plaintiff’s 40 acres.

The plaintiff brought this lawsuit seeking a permanent injunction. The defendant counterclaimed to establish a boundary by acquiescence based on a fence running east and west between the two properties. The district court granted the permanent injunction, but denied the defendant’s counterclaim. The defendant appealed.

Intereference With Easement Rights

On review, the court affirmed the injunction, as well as the district court’s award of $31,300 in damages. A permanent injunction may be granted when a party substantially or unreasonablly interferes with another’s easement rights. The proponent must show “(1) an invasion or threatened invasion of a right, (2) substantial injury or damages will result unless an injunction is granted, and (3) no adequate legal remedy is available.” Skow v. Goforth, 618 N.W.2d 275, 278 (Iowa 2000).

Here, the defendant made it impossible for the plaintiff to exercise its rights under the easement. For almost 30 years, the defendant’s actions made it nearly impossible for the plaintiff or its farm tenants to use the easement for ingress and egress. Without legal intervention, the court reasoned, the defendant’s conduct would likely continue.

The defendant argued that the third element was not met because the plaintiff had the legal remedy to bring a lawsuit against the most recent farm tenant for specific performance of the lease or for damages. The court disagreed, finding that this would not protect the plaintiff from the defendant’s future actions interfereing with the plaintiff’s easement rights.

Boundary by Acquiescence

On appeal, the defendant claimed the district court erred in rejecting his boundary by acquiescence claim. Because the plaintiff testified at trial that the fence had been treated as the boundary line for more than 10 years, the court found that fence was the boundary line. See Iowa Code § 650.14. The court remanded for entry of a corrected order.