Wednesday, October 9, 2019

Ag Law in the Courts


Agricultural law issues in the courts are many.  On a daily basis, cases involving farmers, ranchers, rural landowners and agribusinesses are decided.  Periodically, on this blog I examine a few of the recent court decisions that are of particular importance and interest.  Today’s post is one such post.

Proving water drainage damage; migrating gas and the rule of capture; and suing for Clean Water Act (CWA)  – these are the topics of today’s post.

The Case of the Wayward Water

In Kellen v. Pottebaum, 928 N.W.2d 874 (Iowa Ct. App. 2019), the defendant installed a drain pipe that discharged water from the defendant’s land to the plaintiffs’ land. The plaintiff sued alleging that the pipe caused an unnatural flow of water which damaged the plaintiff’s farmland and sought damages and removal of the pipe. The defendant counterclaimed arguing that the plaintiff’s prior acts and/or inaction regarding the flow of the water caused damage to the defendant’s property. The trial court determined that neither party had established their claims and dismissed each claim with prejudice.

The appellate court affirmed.  As for the sufficiency of the evidence, the appellate court noted that the defendant owned the dominant estate and the plaintiff owned the servient estate. As such, if the plaintiff could prove that the installation of the pipe considerably increased the volume of water flowing onto the plaintiff’s land or substantially changed the drainage and actual damage resulted, the plaintiff would be entitled to relief. However, most of the evidence presented to the court was the observations of lay witnesses rather than measured water flow. Accordingly, the appellate court agreed with the trial court that the plaintiff did not prove by a preponderance of the evidence that installation of the pipe caused the increased water flow. The appellate court noted that a “reasonable fact finder” could attribute the additional water on the plaintiffs’ property to the increased rain fall during the years at issue. The appellate court also determined that the plaintiffs did not prove by preponderance of the evidence that installation of the pipe substantially changed the drainage. The water did not flow in a different direction on the plaintiff’s property. Rather, the defendant altered the flow of water across his property in a natural direction towards the plaintiff’s drainage, which is permissible under state (IA) law. Thus, the plaintiff did not prove harm by a preponderance of the evidence. The appellate court also concluded that the trial court did not abuse its discretion excluding some of the plaintiff’s evidence. 

Ownership of Migrated Gas

In Northern Natural Gas Co. v. ONEOK Field Servs. Co., LLC, No. 118,239, 2019 Kan. LEXIS 324 (Kan. Sup. Ct. Sept. 6, 2019), the plaintiff operated an underground gas storage facility, which was certified by the proper state and federal commissions. The defendants were producers with wells located two to six miles from the edge of the plaintiff’s certified storage area. Stored gas migrated to the defendants’ wells and the defendants captured and sold the gas as their own. The plaintiff sued for lost gas sales and the defendants moved for summary judgment on the grounds that the Kansas common law rule of capture allowed the gas extraction. The trial court granted the defendants’ motion. Two years later, the plaintiff received certification to expand the storage area into the areas with the defendants’ wells. Another dispute arose as to whether the defendants could capture the gas after the plaintiff’s storage area was expanded. The trial court held that the defendants could under the common law rule of capture.

On review, the Kansas Supreme Court reversed and remanded on the basis that the rule of capture did not apply. That rule, the Court noted, allows someone that is acting within their legal rights to capture oil and gas that has migrated from the owner’s property to use the migrated oil and gas for their own purposes. The rule reflects the application of new technology such as injection wells and applies to non-native gas injected into common pools for storage. However, the Court reasoned, the rule does not apply when a party (such as the plaintiff) is authorized to store gas and the storage is identifiable. The Court determined that state statutory law did not override this recognized exception to the application of the rule of capture. The Court remanded the case for a computation of damages for the lost gas. 

Jurisdiction Over CWA §404 Permit Violations – Who Can Sue?

A recent case involving a California farmer has raised some eyebrows.  In the case, the trial court allowed the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) to sue the farmer for an alleged CWA dredge and bill permit violation without a specific recommendation from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).  The farmer was alleged to have discharged “pollutants” into a “waters of the United States” (WOTUS) as a result of tractor tillage activities on his farmland containing or near to wetlands contiguous to a creek that flowed into a WOTUS.  Staff of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (COE) saw the tilled ground and investigated.  The COE staff then conferred with the EPA and then referred the matter to the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ).  The DOJ sued (during the Obama Administration) for enforcement of a CWA §404 permit “by the authority of the Attorney General, and at the request of the Secretary of the Army acting through the United States Corps of Engineers.”  The DOJ alleged that the equipment "constituted a 'point source'" pollutant under the CWA and "resulted in the placement of dredged spoil, biological materials, rock, sand, cellar dirt or other earthen material constituting “pollutants” (within the meaning of 33 U.S.C. § 1362(6) into waters of the United States. The DOJ alleged that the defendant impacted water plants, changed the river bottom and/or replaced Waters of the United States with dry land, and "resulted in the 'discharge of any pollutant' within the meaning of 33 U.S.C. § 1311(a)." 

The defendant moved for summary judgment on the basis that the CWA authorizes only the EPA Administrator to file a CWA §404 enforcement action and that the court, therefore, lacked jurisdiction.  The court disagreed with the defendant on the basis that 28 U.S.C. §1345 conferred jurisdiction.  That statute states, “Except as otherwise provided by Act of Congress, the district courts shall have original jurisdiction of all civil actions, suits or proceedings commenced by the United States or by any agency or officer thereof expressly authorized to sue by Act of Congress.  The court rejected the defendant’s claim that 33 U.S.C. §1319(b) and 33 U.S.C. §1344(s)(3) authorized only the EPA to sue for violations of the CWA, thereby limiting the jurisdiction conferred by 28 U.S.C. §1345.  Those provisions provide that the EPA Secretary is the party vested with the authority to sue for alleged CWA violations.  The court determined that there is a “strong presumption” against implied repeal of federal statutes, especially those granting jurisdiction to federal courts.  In addition, the court determined that the defendant failed to show that the general grant of jurisdiction was irreconcilable with either of the statutes the defendant cited.  Accordingly, the court determined that the defendant could be sued by the U.S. Department of Justice upon the mere recommendation of the COE and without a specific recommendation from the EPA alleging a CWA violation, and in a situation where the CWA did not determine any CWA jurisdiction and only the COE did.  This finding was despite a 1979 Attorney General opinion No. 197 determining that the EPA and not the COE has the ultimate authority to construe what is a navigable WOTUS.

Ultimately, the parties negotiated a settlement. The settlement included $1,750,000 civil penalty. The land which the farmer’s acts occurred will be converted to a conservation reserve and a permanent easement will run with the land to bar any future disturbance.  The settlement also specified that the farmer would spend $3,550,000 "to purchase vernal pool establishment, re-establishment, or rehabilitation credits from one or more COE-approved mitigation banks that serve the [applicable] area . . . .".  The settlement also included other enforcement stipulations, including fines and the civil penalty for noncompliance.  No comments on the settlement were received during the public comment period, after which the settlement was submitted to the court for approval.  The court approved the settlement ad consent decree on the basis that it was fair, reasonable, properly negotiated and consistent with governing law.  The court also determined that the settlement satisfied the goals of the CWA in that it permanently protected the Conservation Reserve (which contained between 75 and 139 acres of WOTUS); fixed damage caused by unauthorized discharges; applied a long-term pre-clearance injunction; required off-site compensatory mitigation and recouped a significant civil penalty.  The case is United States v. Lapant, No. 2:16-CV-01498-KJM-DB, 2019 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 75309 (E.D. Cal. May 3, 2019)United States v. Lapant, No. 2:16-CV-01498-KJM-DB, 2019 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 93590 (E.D. Cal. Jun. 3, 2019).


The three cases summarized today further illustrate the various legal battles that involve farmers, ranchers and rural landowners.  They also illustrate the need to legal counsel that is well-versed in agricultural issues.  That’s what we are all about in the Rural Law Program at Washburn Law School – providing high-level training in agricultural legal and tax issues and then getting new graduates placed in rural areas to represent farmers and ranchers.

Environmental Law, Real Property, Water Law | Permalink


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