Missouri Supreme Court Upholds Ag Nuisance Statute
Labrayere, et al. v. Bohr Farms, et al., No. SC93816, 2015 Mo. LEXIS 29 (Mo. Sup. Ct. Apr. 14, 2015)
In recent years, agriculture has seen increased litigation brought by parties that are generally opposed to various types of agricultural production. Large scale crop farming and livestock operations are in the cross-hairs, as evidenced recently by the attack in Iowa brought by the Des Moines Water Works against farmers that use field tile drainage systems to make their land suitable for cropping practices (drainage is “anti-social”) and various lawsuits brought by rural residents and activist groups against concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs). In response to these attacks, Missouri enacted legislation in 2011 modifying its nuisance laws to provide additional protection against certain types of lawsuits against farming and livestock operations. That statutory amendment was at issue in a recent case, and the court upheld the law against numerous challenges.
The 2011 Amendment
In 2011, the Missouri legislature passed Mo. Rev. Stat. Ch. 537.296. The law went into effect on August 28, 2011. The law, with respect to agricultural livestock and crop production activities, replaced the common law of private nuisance to bar recovery for non-economic damages for items such as loss of use and enjoyment of property, inconvenience or discomfort that the ag nuisance caused. But, the complaining party can recover for economic damages such as the loss in market value of their property and medical costs. In other words, if you can substantiate your damages in monetary terms, you get compensated. If your damages are just psychological and emotional damages that you can’t quantify, the law won’t allow a jury to speculate what the dollar value of those damages might be. The idea behind the law was to help agricultural operations not get tied up in court with frivolous lawsuits involving only speculative damage claims.
Shortly after the law went into effect, the defendant began operating a CAFO supplied with more than 4,000 hogs from Cargill. It was a contract production hog operation. The plaintiffs were nearby landowners (the court doesn’t say, but the reader is left to assume that the landowners were already residing in the area when the CAFO began operating). The plaintiffs sued Cargill and the defendant claiming damages from odors and other various “hazardous emissions” that created a temporary nuisance substantially impairing their “use and quiet enjoyment” of their property. Interestingly, the plaintiffs made no claim that the odors, etc. caused any reduction in the value of their properties or that they had incurred any medical costs as a consequence of the “impaired” use of their properties. The case, therefore, seemed exactly the type of litigation that the new statute was designed to block – litigation where only non-economic, non-quantifiable damages were alleged. As a result, the defendant motioned to dismiss the case, and the plaintiffs brought a laundry list of claims attacking the statute.
The plaintiffs’ claims were as follows:
- The statute impermissibly authorized an unconstitutional private taking;
- The statute authorized a taking without requiring “just compensation”;
- The statute violated the plaintiffs’ constitutional right of equal protection;
- The statute violated the plaintiffs’ constitutionally protected right of due process;
- The statute unconstitutionally delegated the determination of standing to the legislature;
- The statute violated the “open courts” clause of the MO constitution;
- The statute amounted to an unconstitutional special law;
- The defendant alone and along with Cargill acted negligently and in conspiracy with each other to violate the plaintiffs’ rights.
The trial court granted summary judgment for the defendant, and the plaintiffs’ appealed.
MO Supreme Court Opinion
The MO Supreme Court went through each of the claims individually. On the private taking claim, the Court held that the plaintiffs could not establish that the alleged taking was for private use and could not overcome the presumption of constitutional validity. The Court also stated that, “The fact that private parties benefit from a taking does not eliminate the public character of the taking so long as there is some benefit to “any considerable number” of the public.” A use is public if it reasonably likely to create some advantage or benefit for the public. In addition, the Court noted that the statute did not authorize any private party to create a nuisance (unlike an Iowa statute that was struck down as unconstitutional in 1998). It merely said that recovery for nuisance must be established in monetary terms. Likewise, the Court noted that regulations enacted to promote economic development generally have a valid public purpose that is sufficient to satisfy the public use requirement. Importantly, the Court said that “promoting the agricultural economy is a legitimate public purpose” and that the statute was “plainly aimed at promoting the agricultural economy to create a public advantage or benefit. The fact that some parties will receive direct benefits and other will sustain direct costs does not negate the public purposes advanced”… by the statute.
On the claim that the statute authorized a taking for public use without just compensation (in essence, that the statute essentially creates an easement to create a nuisance), the court held that the claim was not ripe for consideration because the plaintiffs were only alleging a temporary nuisance. In addition, the court noted that the statute specifically allowed the recovery of damages for loss in rental value of impacted property when a temporary nuisance was present. That satisfied the constitutionally required just compensation when a temporary nuisance amounts to a temporary taking.
The plaintiffs’ equal protection claim involved an assertion that the damage limitations to economic damages only were not necessary to advance a compelling state interest, and that rural landowners were a “suspect class” whose fundamental property rights were infringed on. This all meant, according to the plaintiffs, that the statute was subject to review under the “strict scrutiny” standard that is reserved for fundamental rights. The plaintiffs claimed that rural residents are a suspect class because they lack political influence. While the court noted that the plaintiffs couldn’t cite a single case to support the notion that rural residents are a suspect class, there might be merit in the claim. For example, the red/blue county-by-county maps of the last two presidential elections clearly illustrate that the vast majority of counties voted for the losing candidate, but that the election was decided by the urban vote. The same can be said in statewide elections in the more rural states. In those states, it’s often just a few urban counties that control the outcome of many issues and selection of candidates. So, the Court determined that rural residents were not a suspect class. Likewise, the Court determined that the statute was only subject to rational basis review, that the state had a legitimate interest in promoting agriculture and reducing the litigation that it faced, and that the statute was rationally related to that legitimate state purpose.
The Court also held that the statute did not violate the plaintiffs’ constitutional due process claim for the same reasons that the statute did not violate the plaintiffs’ equal protection rights.
On the standing issue, the plaintiffs claimed that the statute unconstitutionally delegated the standing determination to the legislature by providing that no person had standing to sue based on the statute unless they had “an ownership interest” in the affected property. However, the court pointed out that none of the plaintiffs’ claims were dismissed due to lack of standing.
On the “open courts” claim, the plaintiffs’ asserted that the statute denied access to the court to “lawful possessors and occupiers of land.” But, the Court noted that the plaintiffs had not argued that the statute restricted court access to pursue to recognized cause of action. Thus, their claim failed.
The Court also held that the statute was not an unconstitutional “special law.” The plaintiffs claimed that the law only benefited the “corporate farming” industry. The Court dismissed this argument at “without merit.” The Court said the statute was a general law based on open-ended characteristics – the landowners that can take advantage of the statute could change, as could the land uses. The open-ended classification, the Court noted, was reasonable – it advanced the legitimate state purpose of promoting the agricultural economy.
As for the plaintiffs’ negligence and conspiracy claims, the Court held that the statute allowed recovery for non-economic damages only if the claims were independent of a nuisance claim. Here, the Court noted, the plaintiffs’ claims were all couched in nuisance and based on the same set of facts. Thus, the negligence and nuisance claims were barred.
The Court’s opinion is a breath of fresh air for agriculture. The Court saw through the plaintiffs’ obvious attempts to attack a form of agricultural production that the plaintiffs did not agree with. Griping about odors, but making no claim that the obnoxious odors reduced property value, is exactly the type of litigation that the statute was designed to bar. Missouri has taken the lead in recent years in protecting and promoting agricultural activities. From adding a right-to-farm amendment to the state Constitution, to defending its egg industry against California’s attempt to regulate the manner in which eggs are produced in California and in other states, to the statue at issue in this case, the Missouri legislature has recognized the value of agricultural production and agricultural producers to society – regardless of the manner in which production activities occur. Iowa should take note.
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