Can Politics And Private Nuisance Law Coexist? Iowa Supreme Court Says Yes

In Freeman v. Grain Processing Corporation, the Iowa Supreme Court confronted an argument that some types of private nuisance actions are too political to be addressed in court. The plaintiffs, residents who lived nearby the defendant grain operation, claimed that the grain facility caused harmful pollutants and noxious odors to invade their land, thus diminishing the full use and enjoyment of their properties and also leading to possible physical side effects. One of the defendant's counterarguments was that this type of case, in which the residents essentially alleged an environmental damage claim under the guise of a private nuisance action, was too intertwined with state and federal environmental laws and regulations to be adequately addressed through a civil lawsuit.

The defendant's theory implicated the "political question" doctrine. Under the political question doctrine, the courts will occasionally, but not often and actually quite rarely, decline to consider a matter that is better left to the government to handle. Six factors are considered in deciding whether the political question doctrine prohibits a legal claim: (1) a textually demonstrable constitutional commitment of the issue to a coordinate political department; (2) a lack of judicially discoverable and manageable standards for resolving it; (3) the impossibility of deciding without an initial policy determination of a kind clearly for nonjudicial discretion; (4) the impossibility of a court’s undertaking independent resolution without expressing lack of the respect due coordinate branches of government; (5) an unusual need for unquestioning adherence to a political decision already made; or (6) the potentiality of embarrassment from multifarious pronouncements by various departments on one question.

The defendant grain operation maintained that that the case involved standard political questions. No judge or jury could decide the claims, according to the defendant, without balancing economic benefits against the harms caused by air pollution. It  asserted that the balancing of interests is best left to the government. The defendant argued that allowing civil lawsuits for environmental pollution would amount to a collateral attack on the federal government's elaborate environmental rules system that will risk undermining the system’s clarity and legitimacy.

The Iowa Supreme Court disagreed that the political question doctrine prohibits environmental claims brought through civil lawsuits. It noted that there is no textual constitutional commitment of environmental issues to another branch of government. The court further ruled that this type of case was not too complex for the civil courts to handle. The law has devised a number of doctrinal approaches to accommodate difficulties in proof associated with complex environmental and toxic tort cases. Finally, the court observed that, unlike classic political questions that don't belong in the courts, there is no need for an initial policy determination by another branch of government.

As a side note, it's interesting that the Iowa Supreme Court is not inclined to apply the political question doctrine in any type of case in which the remedy sought is money damages, including private nuisance actions. Actions for damages are relatively immune to efforts to dismiss based upon the political question doctrine. Monetary damages might but typically do not require courts to dictate policy, nor do they constitute a form of relief that is not judicially manageable. Plaintiffs seeking money damages are not trying to establish standards that conflict with legislative determinations; rather, they are seeking compensation for injuries.

Harley Erbe