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Iowa Supreme Court: Plaintiffs who dropped hog-confinement suit must pay defendants’ costs

by Rox Laird | March 30, 2020

Two Wapello County residents who brought nuisance suits against operators of hog confinements and later voluntarily dropped them must pay the defendants’ costs, including legal fees, the Iowa Supreme Court ruled March 27.

Michael Merrill and Karen Jo Frescoln were among two of 70 original plaintiffs in Honomichl v. Valley View Swine, which led to a June 2018 Supreme Court ruling that its 2004 decision in Gacke v. Pork Xtra remains the correct standard for trial courts to apply in assessing whether a State statute granting immunity to the livestock industry violates the Iowa Constitution as applied to a particular neighboring plaintiff. [See our earlier posts on Honomichl here and here.]

All plaintiffs voluntarily dismissed their suit against Valley View Swine, JBS Live Pork, and other defendants, because they had not complied with the farm mediation requirement. Merrill and Frescoln subsequently refiled their action but later voluntarily dismissed them.

The defendants sued them for costs and expenses allowed under Iowa Code section 657.11(5), and the District Court granted their motions, awarding just over $18,000.

Code section 657.11(5) says: “If a court determines that a claim is frivolous, a person who brings the claim as part of a losing cause of action against a person who may raise a defense under this section shall be liable to the person against whom the action was brought for all costs and expenses incurred in the defense of the action.”

In appealing the judgment, Merrill and Frescoln argued that their voluntarily dismissed filing was not a “losing cause of action,” it was not frivolous, and they challenged the District Court’s assessment of defendants’ costs and expenses.

The Supreme Court disagreed with all three arguments in a decision written by Justice Edward Mansfield joined by all members of the Court except Justice Brent Appel, who took no part.

First, the Court addressed the standard of review under this Code section for the first time in this case, ultimately deciding the trial court’s decision should be reviewed as an abuse of discretion. The statute says, “If a court determines that a claim is frivolous,” Mansfield wrote, emphasizing the word “determines,” not “if” a claim is frivolous. “Arguably, the words chosen by the Legislature recognize that the court in the matter has some discretion, or at least has fact-finding authority,” he wrote.

The Court found no abuse of discretion by the District Court’s holding that the plaintiffs had a “losing cause of action” even though they voluntarily dismissed their complaints, nor that their claims were frivolous, “even though reasonable people could see the matter differently.”

Mansfield interjected what he called some “words of caution” into the Court’s ruling.

First, regarding the District Court’s comment on the large damages sought by Merrill and Frescoln (up to $750,000 or $100,000 per year), Mansfield said those amounts may have been exaggerated “but they do not render the underlying claims frivolous.”

Second, the District Court had commented that the purpose of Frescoln’s litigation was clearly to stop livestock confinement operations, and that she had assumed a profile “as an activist against the confinement production of market hogs,” describing the industry’s methodology as “sinful.”

Mansfield cautioned about questioning a plaintiff’s motives in assessing frivolous claims.

“However, whether litigation motives are pure or not, a claim is not frivolous unless the claim itself lacks substance,” he wrote. “We suspect Valley View and JBS themselves had ulterior motives for filing the present motions. Presumably, their attorney fees to litigate the merits of these motions have far exceeded the $18,501.82 at issue. Yet an award of costs and expenses could have a deterrent effect on other potential plaintiffs. That too is permissible so long as the motions are well-grounded.”

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