Ownership of Disputed Strip of Land Established Via Acquiescence

October 5, 2011 | Erin Herbold-Swalwell

 

In this case, the question before the Iowa Supreme Court was whether a court order dismissing a claim reveals the court’s intent to preserve a claim arising out of the same transaction pending in another lawsuit, and whether the claim in the other lawsuit should be allowed to proceed.  In other words, the court was dealing with the issue of claim preclusion or a party’s “second day in court by alleging a new ground of recovery for the same wrong.”  The Iowa Supreme Court agreed with the trial court’s conclusion that even if the language in the dismissal order in the first claim is less explicit than it should be, the claim in the other lawsuit should proceed. 

Factually, the plaintiffs owned Iowa farmland.  In 2001, the Iowa Department of Transportation (IDOT) condemned part of the land to be used for highway relocation. The notice of condemnation specified that the land would be permanently acquired. Additional land was acquired as a temporary easement where the IDOT could borrow material for use in the highway project. The borrow site was to have been restored upon completion of the highway project.  Thus, the IDOT had a temporary easement in the borrow site.  The condemnation commission awarded a condemnation award to the plaintiffs in 2001. A few years later, the plaintiffs discovered that the IDOT never replaced the topsoil in the borrow area and tried to get the IDOT to comply by going through administrative appeals process. Unable to make any progress, the plaintiffs sued in 2008. 

The trial court granted the state’s motion for summary judgment, finding that the plaintiffs did not seek the proper remedy. According to the trial court, the proper remedy for the plaintiffs was a mandamus action to compel further condemnation proceedings. The plaintiffs attempted to amend their claim through equity proceedings. Thus, the plaintiffs asked the court to dismiss the first suit and amend the claim to a mandamus suit in equity.  The IDOT argued that the plaintiffs were barred from bringing the subsequent suit under the principles of claim preclusion. Ultimately, the trial court granted the plaintiffs’ motion to amend to the mandamus claim and stated that the claim was preserved. The IDOT appealed, claiming that the first claim was resolved by a final order and the second claim was precluded. 

The appellate court held that there was no claim preclusion.  In this case, the final order resolving the first action indicated an understanding that the second action would continue. The first action was not really a final action, because the order dismissing it contemplated preservation of the claim.  Lambert, et al. v. Iowa DOT, No. 09-0998, 2011 Iowa Sup. LEXIS 76 (Iowa Sup. Ct. Sept. 30, 2011).