Thursday, November 26, 2020
As readers of this blog know, periodically I write an article focusing on recent court developments. This is one of those articles. Recently, federal and state courts have issued some rather significant opinions involving livestock odors, overtime wages for dairy workers and the Second Amendment right to bear arms.
A potpourri of ag law and related issues – it’s the topic of today’s post.
Appellate Court Upholds $750,000 Compensatory Damage Award in Hog Nuisance Suit
A nuisance is an invasion of an individual's interest in the use and enjoyment of land rather than an interference with the exclusive possession or ownership of the land. The concept has become increasingly important in recent years due to land use conflicts posed by large-scale, industrialized confinement livestock operations. Indeed, the industrialization of agriculture has given rise to nuisance suits brought by farmers against large-scale agricultural operations.
Nuisance law prohibits land uses that unreasonably and substantially interfere with another individual's quiet use and enjoyment of property. The doctrine is based on two interrelated concepts: (1) landowners have the right to use and enjoy property free of unreasonable interferences by others; and (2) landowners must use property so as not to injure adjacent owners.
Nuisance law is rooted in the common law and has been developed over several centuries as courts settled land use conflicts. Nuisance law is always changing, and the legal rules vary between jurisdictions. Nuisance law is important to agriculture because of the noxious odors produced by many farm operations, especially those involving livestock production.
The two primary issues at stake in any agricultural nuisance dispute are whether the use alleged to be a nuisance is reasonable for the area and whether the use alleged to be a nuisance substantially interferes with the use and enjoyment of neighboring land. Another issue may be whether the complained-of activity is protected by a state right-to-farm statute.
All of these concepts were involved in this case. Here, the plaintiffs were pre-existing neighbors to the defendant’s large-scale confinement hog feeding facility conducted by a third-party farming operation via contract. The facility annually maintained nearly 15,000 of the defendant’s hogs that generated about 153,000 pounds of feces and urine every day. The waste was disposed of via lagoons and by spreading it over open “sprayfields” on the farm. The plaintiffs sued in state court in 2013 for nuisance violations, but later dismissed that action and refiled in federal court after learning of the defendant’s control over the hog feeding facility naming the defendant as the sole defendant.
The federal trial court coordinated 26 related cases against similar hog production operations brought by nearly 500 plaintiffs into a master case docket and proceeded with trials in 2017. In this case, the jury awarded $75,000 in compensatory damages to each of 10 plaintiffs and $5 million in punitive damages to each plaintiff. The punitive damage award was later reduced to $2.5 million per plaintiff after applying a state law cap on punitive damages.
On appeal, the appellate court determined that the trial court had properly allowed the plaintiffs’ expert testimony to establish the presence of fecal material on the plaintiffs’ homes and had properly limited the expert witness testimony of the defendant concerning odor monitoring she conducted at the hog facility. The appellate court also rejected the defendant’s claim that the third party farming operation should be included in the case as a necessary and indispensable party. The appellate court also affirmed the trial court’s holding concerning the availability of compensatory damages beyond the rental value of the property and the jury instruction on nuisance. The appellate court also concluded that the trial court properly submitted the question of punitive damages to the jury. The appellate court reversed the trial court’s admission of financial information of the defendant’s corporate grandfather and combining the punitive damages portion of the trial with the liability portion, but held that such errors did not require a new trial. However, the appellate court remanded the case for a consideration of the proper award of punitive damages without consideration of the grandparent’s company’s financial information (such as compensation amounts to corporate executives).
It’s also important to note that while North Carolina law was involved in this case, as a result of this litigation several states, including Nebraska and Oklahoma, have recently amended their state right-to-farm laws with the intent of strengthening the protections afforded farming operations.
Overtime Exemption for Dairy Workers Unconstitutional.
Martinez-Cuevas v. Deruyter Brothers Dairy, Inc., No. 96267-7, 2020 Wash. LEXIS 660 (Wash. Sup. Ct. Nov. 5, 2020)
Federal law provides an exemption from paying overtime wages for persons employed in agriculture. Many states have a comparable exemption. In this case, the exemption contained in Washington law was at issue.
The plaintiffs brought a class action on behalf of 300 of the defendant’s workers challenging the exemption of dairy workers from overtime pay under the Washington Minimum Wage Act. The plaintiffs also claimed that the defendant violated other wage and hour rules. The plaintiffs claimed that the overtime exemption violated the equal protection clause in the state constitution and was racially biased against Hispanic workers.
The state Supreme Court, in a 5-4 decision, the majority held that the exemption undermined a “fundamental right” to health and safety protections for workers in dangerous jobs that the state Constitution guarantees via the privileges and immunities clause. The majority focused on Article II, Sec. 35 of the Washington Constitution requiring the legislature to pass law necessary “for the protection of persons working in…employments dangerous to life or deleterious to health,” and Article I which the majority construed as protecting “fundamental rights of state citizenship.” The majority believed that there was a connection between the requirement that the legislature pass laws to protect workers in dangerous occupations and the minimum wage law, and that the legislature didn’t have a reasonable basis to exclude dairy workers from the overtime pay requirements of the law.
The dissenting justices pointed out that overtime pay is not a fundamental constitutional right and, as such, does not implicated the privileges and immunities clause. Instead, the state legislature has a “wide berth” to decide that laws that are required to carry out that purpose. The dissent pointed out that the legislature could simply repeal the overtime law and no person would have a personal or private common law right to insist on overtime pay absent an employment contract with a term promising overtime pay.
The ruling means that dairy farmers will be required to pay $20.54 per overtime hour beginning in 2021. That is the case, of course, for the workers that still have a job, have overtime hours and aren’t displaced by automation.
Lifetime Ban on Owning Firearms For Filing Tax Returns With False Statement
Folajtar v. The Attorney General of the United States, No. 19-1687, 2020 U.S. App. LEXIS 37006 (3rd Cir. Nov. 24, 2020)
Any law that impairs a fundamental constitutional right (any of the first ten amendments to the Constitution) is subject to strict scrutiny – or at least it’s supposed to be. The right to bear arms, as the Second Amendment, is a fundamental constitutional right. Thus, any law restricting that right is to be strictly scrutinized. But, does a convicted felon always permanently lose the right to own a firearm. What if the felony is a non-violent one? These questions were at issue in this case.
The plaintiff pleaded guilty in 2011 to willfully making a materially false statement on her federal tax returns. She was sentenced to three-years’ probation, including three months of home confinement, a $10,000 fine, and a $100 assessment. She also paid back taxes exceeding $250,000, penalties and interest. Her conviction triggered 18 U.S.C. §922(g)(1), which prohibits those convicted of a crime punishable by more than one year in prison from possessing firearms. The plaintiff’s crime was punishable by up to three years’ imprisonment and a fine of up to $100,000.
As originally enacted in 1938, 18 U.S.C. §922(g)(1) denied gun ownership to those convicted of violent crimes (e.g., murder, kidnapping, burglary, etc.). However, the statute was expanded in the 1968. Later, the U.S. Supreme Court recognized gun ownership as an individual constitutional right in 2008. District of Columbia v. Heller, 554 U.S. 570 (2008). In a split decision, the majority reasoned that any felony is a “serious” crime and, as such, results in a blanket exclusion from Second Amendment protections for life. The majority disregarded the fact that the offense was non-violent, was the plaintiff’s first-ever felony offense, and was an offense for which she received no prison sentence. The majority claimed it had to rule this way because of deference to Congressional will that, the majority claimed, created a blanket, categorical rule.
The dissent rejected the majority’s categorical rule, pointing out that the plaintiff’s offense was nonviolent, and no evidence of the plaintiff’s dangerousness was presented. The dissent also noted that the majority’s “extreme deference” gave legislatures the power to manipulate the Second Amendment by simply choosing a label. Instead, the dissent reasoned, when the fundamental right to bear arms is involved, narrow tailoring to public safety is required. Because the plaintiff posed no danger to anyone, the dissent’s position was that her Second Amendment rights should not be curtailed. Likewise, because gun ownership is an individual constitutional right, the dissent pointed out that the Congress bears a high burden before extinguishing it. Post-2008, making a categorical declaration is insufficient to satisfy that burden, according to the dissent.
Expect this case to be headed to the U.S. Supreme Court. Justices Barrett and Kavanaugh have already indicated that they agree with the dissent based on their comments in earlier cases.
There are always significant developments in the law impacting farmers and ranchers and rural landowners. The three court opinions discussed in this article are each significant in their own respect. Stay informed. And, on this Thanksgiving Day 2020, if you don’t have everything you want, be thankful for the things you don’t have that you don’t want.