Drainage Contractor

Explaining the Des Moines Water Works lawsuit dismissal

June 1, 2017  By Kristine A. Tidgren

A federal court has dismissed the lawsuit filed against the drainage districts in three northwest Iowa counties by the Board of Water Works Trustees for the City of Des Moines (DMWW). The court was required to dismiss the lawsuit after finding that, even if DMWW proved an injury, the drainage districts would have no ability to remedy it. In other words, they were not the proper defendants for this lawsuit. 

Iowa law was clear from the beginning. The Supreme Court had long held that a drainage districts is “merely an area of land, not an entity subject to a judgement for tort damages.” As we explained when the lawsuit was filed: “[This law] rocogni[zes] that the sole purpose and function of the drainage district is to facilitate the construction and maintenance of a unified drainage system. The trustees have no authority to act outside of their narrow responsibilities of creating and maintaining what is in most places a 100-year old system.”

DMWW acknowledged the law, but argued it was outdated. 

DMWW asserted this was a “new day” and the court should apply a “new rule of liability and responsibility for drainage districts concerning pollution.” DMWW argued “implied immunity has survived through repetition rather than critical analysis.” The Iowa Supreme Court disagreed, ruling in January that Iowa drainage districts are immune from claims for damages or injunctive relief. 


The Iowa Supreme Court was answering certified questions related to the tort claims DMWW filed against the districts, but the federal court found this ruling also applied to the Clean Water Act claims – even if DMWW were to prevail in its Clean Water Act claims, the districts would have no legal ability to remedy the alleged injuries. If the party against whom a suit is brought cannot provide a remedy, a federal court has no jurisdiction to hear it, so the federal court dismissed the tort and the Clean Water Act claims. 

The federal court also found no merit to DMWW’s claims that its constitutional rights were violated. The court ruled the immunity Iowa law affords to drainage districts does not violate the equal protection clause or the due process clause of the United States constitution. Finally, the court agreed with the Iowa Supreme Court’s analysis of DMWW’s takings claim, noting “a public entity such as DMWW cannot assert a fifth amendment takings claim against another political subdivision of the state.”

The entire action was dismissed on March 17. 

Kristine A. Tidgren is the staff attorney at Iowa State University’s Center for Agricultural Law and Taxation. 

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