Des Moines Water Works Lawsuit Gets More Complicated

January 26, 2016 | Kristine A. Tidgren

This month has seen several important developments in the Des Moines Water Works (DMWW) lawsuit against drainage districts in three northwest Iowa counties. On January 11, Judge Bennett ruled that the Iowa Supreme Court should decide four questions of Iowa law implicated by the lawsuit's tort and constitutional claims. Consequently, he certified these questions to the Iowa Supreme Court. Primarily, Iowa's highest court is asked to decide whether the claims for tort damages and equitable relief can be maintained against the drainage districts or whether Iowa law grants them qualified immunity. Secondarily, the Court is asked to decide whether DMWW, as a political subdivision, can assert protections like due process and equal protection afforded under the Iowa Constitution.

Depending on how the Iowa Supreme Court rules, all claims in the lawsuit not arising under the Clean Water Act or its Iowa counterpart could be dismissed. Consequently, the drainage districts filed a motion seeking to stay the federal court proceedings pending resolution of the certified questions. DMWW resisted the motion and instead asked the court to bifurcate the proceedings, separating the Clean Water Act claims from the tort law claims and allowing the Clean Water Act claims to move forward independently.

In his January 19 order, Judge Bennett chose a middle ground. Rather than granting the requested stay, the court stayed proceedings with respect to the tort and constitutional claims. He denied the motion, however, with respect to the Clean Water Act claims. This means that the discovery deadline for the latter claims remains March 1, 2016, and the deadline for dispositive motions on these claims remains April 1, 2016. The parties will not, however, resume discovery on the tort and constitutional claims until the Iowa Supreme Court issues its ruling.

Judge Bennett also denied DMWW's request to bifurcate the proceedings. That means that, for now, the trial date for the entire matter is still set for August 8, 2016. Realizing, however, that the ruling of the Iowa Supreme Court (the timing of which is unknown) could impact this date, Judge Bennett set forth three contingencies:

(1) If the Iowa Supreme Court has resolved the certification order before trial, such that there are no viable state law claims remaining, the parties should be prepared to proceed with trial on August 8, 2016;

(2) If the Iowa Supreme Court has resolved the certification order before trial, such that there are viable state law claims remaining, the court would consider a motion to continue, and if appropriate, might set a new trial date so that all claims may be consolidated and resolved in a single trial; or

(3) If the Iowa Supreme Court has not resolved the certification order 60 days before the existing trial date, that is on or before June 9, 2016, then the parties shall contact the court to schedule a new trial date.

We'll keep you posted.

Here is a copy of the January 19 order.