Iowa Supreme Court Says Drainage District Cannot Enforce 40-Year-Old Injunction

July 24, 2017 | Kristine A. Tidgren

On June 30, 2017, the Iowa Supreme Court ruled that a 1977 injunction requiring a railway company to rebuild a dike, expired under a 20-year limitations period set forth in Iowa Code § 614.1(6). Consequently, a drainage district’s action seeking to enforce that injunction was dismissed.

The case arose because of ongoing drainage problems created by a railroad bridge constructed in 1872. The bridge allows railroad tracks to pass over Whiskey Creek in Louisa County. During heavy rains, sediment and debris has long plugged the channel under the bridge, causing water to flood and damage fields to the north of the bridge. Although railway companies responsible for the bridge originally built a dike to solve the problem, the dike has repeatedly failed.

The drainage problems associated with the bridge have been the subject of a century’s worth of litigation. More recently, in 1977, a district court ordered the railway company that owned the right of way to reconstruct the collapsed dike to better channel the creek under the bridge. The court also enjoined the railway company from continuing to allow flowage from Whiskey Creek upon the land of the neighboring landowners, whose farmland was to the northwest of the bridge.  The court ruled that the land owners had a prescriptive easement for the flow of the Creek under the bridge.

After the 1977 judgment, the right of way changed ownership several times. In 1984, the local drainage district filed a contempt action against the railway company that owned the right of way at the time. The district court entered a judgment holding the railway company in contempt for failing to comply with the 1977 injunction. The railway company rebuilt the dike and the contempt was purged.

Soon after it was rebuilt, the dike collapsed again. Apparently, no subsequent owner has sought to repair it. Consequently, neighboring landowners have long been subject to persistent disruption of drainage across the railroad right of way.

Finally, in 2013, the drainage district filed another contempt action against the current owner of the right of way, Dakota, Minnesota & Eastern Railroad (DM & E). This application stated that the 1977 judgment imposed upon DM & E a continuing obligation to keep the dike in good and proper repair. The trial court found DM & E in contempt of the 1977 judgment because it had willfully failed to reconstruct the collapsed dike to prevent the Creek from flowing onto the property of the adjacent owners. The trial court also found that DM & E had knowledge that it was subject to the 1977 injunction.

On interlocutory review, the Iowa Supreme Court vacated the trial court’s order. The Court ruled that the 1977 judgment had expired under Iowa Code § 614.1(6), which imposes a 20-year limitations period on actions brought to enforce a court judgment. The Court ruled that this limitations period equally applied to actions to enforce a permanent injunction and that the drainage district’s action was an untimely attempt to enforce the 1977 judgment.

As a result of this ruling, the drainage district must go back to the drawing board and initiate another civil action, perhaps seeking a fresh injunction against the railway company.  This case also informs anyone benefiting from a permanent injunction to seek to renew that judgment within 20 years. Absent a renewal, the Court’s ruling means that the right to enforce any judgment or injunction ceases after 20 years.  

The case is Dakota, Minnesota & Eastern RR v. Iowa District Court for Louisa Cty, No. 15-1456 (Iowa June 30, 2017).