DES MOINES — The Iowa Supreme Court has upheld an earlier ruling that ordered plaintiffs in a suit to reimburse the defendants for their costs.
The Wapello County case involved two confined animal feeding operations (CAFOs). Property owners near the hog lots initially had to dismiss their suits because they had not exhausted mediation options. The suits were refiled after mediation failed.
Two of the plaintiffs later dismissed their suits. The district court ruled against them on the merits of the case as a result, and the defendants sued to recover their costs. The supreme court agreed with the lower court rulings that the dismissals meant the original plaintiffs had “a losing cause of action” on a frivolous claim and that they should reimburse the defendants.
Valley View Swine began operating the CAFOs in 2013, supplying hogs to what is now JBS. Michael Merrill and Karen Jo Frescoln were part of the suits claiming the facilities failed to reduce odors and pathogens from the lots. Merrill dismissed his claims two months before the trial was scheduled, and Frescoln did so after an appeal sent the case back to district court.
The district court ordered Merrill and Frescoln to pay more than $7,600 apiece to JBS and $1,500 each to Valley View.
In upholding the ruling, the Iowa Supreme Court said the state’s rules for civil procedure say a second voluntary dismissal must effectively be interpreted as a ruling “against that party on the merits, unless otherwise ordered by the court, in the interests of justice.”
Merrill and Frescoln argued such a ruling does not mean they were losing parties in the case. The high court rejected that interpretation.
“A common-sense view would hold that a party who suffers an adverse ‘adjudication against that party on the merits’ is a losing party with a losing cause of action,” the court ruled.
While the justices said reasonable people might conclude the suits had grounds, they found the district court did not abuse its discretion in finding them frivolous. They called Merrill’s evidence of harm “marginal.” Frescoln’s claims might have been stronger, but “unfortunately, she lacked the legally required connection to the property,” she said was affected by the CAFOs.