DMWW Court Certifies Questions to Iowa Supreme Court

January 12, 2016 | Kristine A. Tidgren

Yesterday saw a big development in the Des Moines Water Works case against three northwest Iowa drainage districts. Judge Bennett certified four questions of Iowa law to the Iowa Supreme Court.:

Question 1: As a matter of Iowa law, does the doctrine of implied immunity of drainage districts as applied in cases such as Fisher v. Dallas County, 369 N.W.2d 426 (Iowa 1985), grant drainage districts unqualified immunity from all of the damage claims set forth in the Complaint?

Question 2: As a matter of Iowa law, does the doctrine of implied immunity grant drainage districts unqualified immunity from equitable remedies and claims, other than mandamus?

Question 3: As a matter of Iowa law, can the plaintiff assert protections afforded by the Iowa Constitution’s Inalienable Rights, Due Process, Equal Protection, and Takings Clauses against drainage districts as alleged in the Complaint?

Question 4: As a matter of Iowa law, does the plaintiff have a property interest that may be the subject of a claim under the Iowa Constitution’s Takings Clause as alleged in the Complaint?

This means that the Iowa Supreme Court will have a large say in whether the tort claims brought by DMWW will be dismissed. This also means that the Iowa Supreme Court will have a large say in whether DMWW can continue its portion of the action seeking monetary tort damages against the districts. The certification does not impact the merits of the Clean Water Act claims. However, it seems likely that the process of certification will delay the entire action, perhaps by as much as a year. It is unlikely that the scheduled August 2016 trial will occur, even if the court were to bifurcate the proceedings.

Judge Bennett raised the issue of whether to certify the questions to the Iowa Supreme Court on his own. The drainage districts opposed the approach, arguing that Iowa law  is well established, that drainage districts are not amenable to suit for tort damages, and that the federal court should apply existing Iowa law.

Judge Bennett agreed that his standard seven-factor test for determining whether to certify a question to the state's highest court was probably not met; however, he wrote that certification was the proper course in this case, given the importance of the issues:

Although I agree with the defendants that the seven factor test I outlined Hagan probably weighs against certification in this case, I am going to certify it anyway. 964 F. Supp. 2d at 961. I would have to reject the thoughtful, creative, novel, and well-argued positions of DMWW, as unsupported by Iowa law and unlikely to be adopted by the Iowa Supreme Court, if I did not certify these questions. But, without certification, I would be substituting my judgment of Iowa law in lieu of the seven justices of the Iowa Supreme Court. In light of the novelty of DMWW’s state law arguments, the fact that this case is one of first impression, for either this court or the Iowa Supreme Court, and the public importance of this case, I believe that the interests of the parties and the public are best served by a definitive adjudication of these state law issues by the ultimate authority on them - the Iowa Supreme Court. Given the importance of these questions, I find no serious prejudice to the defendants by certifying these questions to the Iowa Supreme Court, despite their forceful resistance to certification.

Judge Bennett designated DMWW to file the first brief before the Iowa Supreme Court. The proceedings will go from there. If the Iowa Supreme Court declares that existing Iowa law applies to the facts of this case, the federal court would be left to dismiss the tort claims, unless it would determine that Iowa law violates the United States Constitution. So even if the drainage districts prevail at the Iowa Supreme Court level, the federal court would have to determine several issues pertaining to the federal constitution before it could ultimately dismiss the claims addressed by the motion for partial summary judgment.

This already complicated litigation just got a little more complicated.

You can read the order here.