Friday, September 4, 2015

Labrayere v. Bohr Farms, LLC

Opinion handed down April 14, 2015
Several landowners (“Appellants”) filed suit against Cargill Pork, LLC (“Cargill”) and Bohr Farms, LLC (“Bohr” and, together, “Respondents”) for temporary nuisance, negligence, and conspiracy allegedly arising from Respondents’ large-scale hog operations.[1]  Appellants’ temporary nuisance claim sought an award for damages arising out of the loss of use and enjoyment of their properties.[2]  The trial court entered summary judgment in favor of Respondents.[3]  On appeal, the Supreme Court of Missouri affirmed the trial court’s judgment.[4]  The court determined that Missouri Revised Statutes Section 537.296 was constitutional and only authorized recovery for diminution of rental value or documented medical conditions arising from temporary nuisance – not for damages due to the loss of use or enjoyment of property.[5]  Further, the court found that the trial court did not err in denying Appellants’ damages for negligence and civil conspiracy, because these claims were dependent on the nuisance claim, and Section 537.296.6(1) precludes recovery in such a case.[6] 

I.  Facts and Holding

Bohr owns and operates a concentrated animal feeding operation (“CAFO”) where it raises hogs owned by Cargill.[7]  This CAFO can accommodate more than 4,000 hogs and has on-site systems for sewage disposal and deceased hog composting.[8]  Appellants own properties located near the CAFO.[9]  Appellants alleged that the hog operations cause “offensive odors, particulates, pathogens, hazardous substances, flies, and manure to ‘escape’ onto their property.”[10]  Appellants filed suit claiming that these “offensive emissions” constituted a temporary nuisance that substantially impaired the use and enjoyment of their property.[11]  Additionally, Appellants’ asserted that Bohr was negligent, that Cargill was vicariously liable for nuisance and negligence, and that Respondents both engaged in conspiracy.[12]

Section 537.296 applies to nuisance actions where the “alleged nuisance emanates from property primarily used for crop or animal production purposes”; [13]  thus, Section 537.296 governed Appellants’ claims.  First, Appellants sought non-economic damages for the loss and use of enjoyment of their property.[14]  Respondents attacked, asserting that the statute foreclosed Appellants’ claim for non-economic damages because: (1) Section 537.296.2(2)-(3) only authorizes the recovery of economic damages for diminution in the market value of the affected property and for documented medical costs caused by the nuisance and (2) the Section precludes recovery for non-economic damages arising from loss of use and enjoyment, inconvenience, or discomfort.[15]  Appellants also attempted to state a claim for negligence and conspiracy.[16]  Respondents contested this claim on statutory grounds as well, arguing that while Section 537.296.6(1) does not prohibit a claimant from recovering damages for annoyance, discomfort, sickness, or emotional distress, those damages must be based on a cause of action independent of the nuisance claim, and, here, they were not.[17]

Respondents filed a motion for summary judgement on the grounds discussed above.  Appellants responded by arguing that Section 537.296 was unconstitutional on several grounds and that there were insufficient facts to warrant summary judgment on their claims for conspiracy and negligence.[18]  The trial court agreed with Respondents and granted their summary judgment motion.[19] 

On appeal, Appellants again argued that Section 537.296 violated several constitutional provisions.[20]  They also argued that they were entitled to damages for the loss of use and enjoyment pursuant to their negligence and conspiracy causes of action.[21]  The Supreme Court of Missouri affirmed the decision below.[22]  The court held that Section 537.296 was constitutional because it does not authorize an unconstitutional private taking or a taking for public use without just compensation nor does it violate the equal protection clause or deny substantive due process.[23]  Further, the court rejected Appellants’ claims that the statute unlawfully defines “standing,” violates the open courts clause, and is an unconstitutional special law.[24]  Additionally, the court ruled that the circuit court did not err in denying summary judgment on Appellants’ claims for negligence and conspiracy, because these claims were dependent on Appellants’ nuisance claim, and, thus, awarding damages was not appropriate under Section 537.296.[25] 
II.  Legal Background

The instant case was the first case giving major attention to Section 537.296; thus, there is not a great deal of history surrounding this law.  While this is may be the case, the Supreme Court of Missouri has exclusive appellate jurisdiction of constitutional challenges to Missouri statutes.[26]  When analyzing a statute to determine its constitutionality, Missouri courts presume validity and only invalidate a statute on constitutional grounds where the challenging party proves clear violation of a constitutional provision.[27]
III.  Instant Decision

The court held that Section 537.296 was constitutional and that the trial court did not err in entering judgment on Appellants’ negligence and conspiracy claims.[28]  In determining the constitutionality of Section 537.296, the court presumed constitutionality and placed the burden on Appellants to prove a violation of constitutional limitations.[29] 

First, the court rejected Appellants’ argument that Section 537.296.2 authorized an unconstitutional private taking in violation of Article I, section 28 of the Missouri Constitution.[30]  Appellants had reasoned that Section 537.296.2’s limitation on the types of damages recoverable for temporary nuisance required Appellants to forfeit their rights to the use and enjoyment of their properties for Respondents’ private benefit.[31]  The court noted two flaws in Appellants’ reasoning.[32]  First, the statute does not give any private party or landowner the authority to create a nuisance, rather the statute provides that nuisance is unlawful and allows a party suffering from nuisance to recover damages.[33]  Second, any taking effectuated by Section 537.296 advances a legitimate public purpose such that the contemplated property use is public in nature.[34] 

Next, the court denied that Section 537.296.2 authorized a taking for public use without just compensation.[35]  Appellants argued that the workings of the Statute in their case effectively amounted to the grant of an easement in Respondents’ favor, allowing them to permanently interfere with Appellants’ use and enjoyment of their properties.[36]  Further, Appellants asserted that Section 537.296.2(2) results in a regulatory taking by limiting temporary nuisance damages.[37]  The court responded by first finding Appellants’ easement argument not ripe for consideration.[38]  The court then explained that diminution of rental value, which is the measure of damages provided for under Section 537.296, is the benchmark for awarding just compensation for a temporary taking, such that the constitutional requirement of Article I, Section 26 was satisfied.[39]
Third, the court rejected Appellants’ argument that Section 537.296.2 denied equal protection.[40]  Appellants argued that the statute should be analyzed under strict scrutiny because it creates a suspect classification of rural landowners and residents that infringes on fundamental property rights.[41]  The court found no suspect classification or infringement on a fundamental constitutional right; therefore, the court determined that analysis under strict scrutiny was not required and a rational-basis review was appropriate.[42]  It further found that Section 537.296 rationally advances a legitimate state interest.[43]  The court rejected Appellants’ due process argument on similar grounds.[44]

Fifth, the court found that Appellants did not have standing to challenge the standing provision of Section 537.296.5.[45]  This Section requires a person to have an “ownership interest” in the affected property in order to have standing.[46]  Appellants argued that standing is a judicial doctrine not subject to definition by the legislature, and, thus, the Section violates the constitutional separation of powers requirement.[47]  But the court noted that no litigants in the instant case were dismissed for lack of standing under the statutorily-required “ownership interest.” Thus, the court held that Appellants did not have standing to challenge the Statute on this ground.[48] 

Next, the court denied Appellants’ claim that Section 537.296.2 violates the open courts clause of the Missouri Constitution, finding that they had not alleged a violation of that clause’s guarantee “to pursue in the courts the causes of action the substantive law recognizes.”[49]

Lastly, the court ruled that Section 537.396.2 was not an unconstitutional special law.[50]  Appellants argued that the Statute creates a special law because it only benefits the corporate farming industry.[51]  The court pointed out that because the status members of this class could change, the law is an open-ended law, and open-ended laws are not special so long as the classification is reasonable.[52]  In the instant case, the court ruled that Section 537.396.2 is an open-ended law and the classification is reasonable.[53] 

In examining the trial court’s ruling on Appellants’ negligence and conspiracy claims, the court looked at Appellants’ pleading and the statutory language of Section 537.296.6(1).[54]  The court found that these claims were based on the same facts that formed the basis of the nuisance claim and are not “independent of [the] claim of nuisance” as required by Section 537.296.6(1).[55]  Because the claims were inseparable from the nuisance claim, the court found them to be barred by the Statute.[56]

The Honorable Zel M. Fischer wrote a concurring opinion.[57]  Judge Fischer agreed with the majority’s analysis of the distinction between private and public use and just compensation; however, Judge Fisher expressed that the court did not need to reach these issues because there was no taking.[58]  The concurrence explains that in order for there to be a taking, the government must act in a way that actually interferes with constitutionally protected property rights, known as the “bundle of rights.”[59]  Where there is no such interference, there has been no taking.[60]  Judge Fisher concluded that this was the outcome in the instant case.[61]
IV.  Comment

The court noted, “Section 537.296 is plainly aimed at promoting the agricultural economy to create a public advantage or benefit.[62]  The fact that some parties will receive direct benefits and others will sustain directs costs does not negate the public purposes advanced by section 537.296.”[63]  In upholding this statute, the Supreme Court of Missouri promoted these interests and strengthened the field of agriculture.  Without this statute, the farming industry would face substantial challenges, as the industry as a whole could risk devastation arising from a magnitude of nuisance claims.  This decision displays a strong constitutional analysis of Section 537.296, and the outcome of this case properly favors the public interest.
- Lynsey Russell

[1] Labrayere v. Bohr Farms, LLC, 458 S.W.3d 319, 325 (Mo. 2015) (en banc).
[2] Id.
[3] Id.
[4] Id. at 325-26.
[5] Id. 
[6] Id. at 326.
[7] Id.
[8] Id.
[9] Id.  These properties are located in Callaway and Montgomery counties.  Id.
[10] Id.
[11] Id.
[12] Id. at 325.
[13] Id.
[14] Id. at 326-27.
[15] Id.Mo. Rev. Stat. § 537.296.2(2)-(3) (2015).
[16] Labrayere, 458 S.W.3d at 325.
[17] Id. at 327; § 537.296.2(2)-(3).
[18] Labrayere, 458 S.W.3d at 327.
[19] Id.
[20] Id. at 326.
[21] Id. at 334.
[22] Id. at 326, 335.
[23] Id. at 327-33.
[24] Id. at 333-34
[25] Id. at 334-35.
[26] Mo. Const. art. V, § 3.
[27] See, e.g., Glossip v. Mo. Dep’t of Transp. & Highway Patrol Emp. Ret. Sys., 411 S.W.3d 796, 801 (Mo. 2013) (en banc).
[28] Labrayere, 458 S.W.3d at 325-26.
[29] Id. at 327.
[30] Id. 
[31] Id.
[32] Id. at 328.
[33] Id.
[34] Id.
[35] Id.
[36] Id.
[37] Id. at 328-29.
[38] Id. at 329.
[39] Id. at 329-31.
[40] Id. at 331.
[41] Id.
[42] Id. at 331-32.
[43] Id. at 332.
[44] Id.
[45] Id.
[46] Id.
[47] Id.
[48] Id.
[49] Id.
[50] Id.
[51] Id. at 333-34.
[52] Id. at 334.
[53] Id.
[54] Id.
[55] Id. at 334-35.
[56] Id.
[57] Id. at 335-37.
[58] Id. at 336-37.
[59] Id. at 336.
[60] Id.
[61] Id.
[62] Id. at 328.
[63] Id.