Iowa Supreme Court takes Wapello case

·2 min read

Jul. 1—DES MOINES — The Iowa Supreme Court will hear a case involving Wapello County and the removal of 16 vehicles from a property in 2019.

In April, the Iowa Court of Appeals ruled in favor of landowners Rita McNeal and Cliff McNeal by reversing a January 2021 district court judge who ruled the county had the authority to remove the vehicles.

The county requested further review by the Iowa Supreme Court, a request that was granted Friday.

The decision by the Iowa Court of Appeals revived a lawsuit the landowners filed against the county, arguing they had no authority to remove vehicles from their property in 2019.

The McNeals operate an auto repair shop in Ottumwa, but the land in question was zoned single-family residential. The county had told the McNeals as far as back 2002 that the property could not be used as a junk or salvage yard, according to court documents. In 2019, the county had acted on concerns over the condition of the McNeal property and the sides ultimately entered into a settlement agreement in April that year.

In reversing the district court decision, the appeals court found the term "derelict vehicle" is not defined in the settlement agreement, and neither is a definition contained in the county ordinance or Iowa law used to justify the county's action.

During oral arguments before the Iowa Court of Appeals, attorneys for Wapello County asserted that the definition of derelict is at the county's decision, arguing the purpose of the agreement was to clean the property to the satisfaction of the county.

"Assigning that level of unchecked authority to the county is inconsistent with the norms of contract interpretation," Iowa Court of Appeals Judge Mary Tabor wrote. She pointed to a decision from the case Power Eng. & Mfg. v. Krug Intern., in which the Iowa Supreme Court ruled that courts generally do not interpret a contract "in a manner that would put one part at the mercy of another."

The determination of derelict vehicles should have been determined between the parties, or through legal proceedings, Tabor wrote. Thus, awarding summary judgment to the county and dismissing the case was improper, the appeals court ruled.

Kyle Ocker is the editor of the Ottumwa Courier and the Oskaloosa Herald. He can be reached at kocker@ottumwacourier.com. Follow him on Twitter @Kyle_Ocker.