Defendants: Make sure you raise and prove your affirmative defenses
Posted on 07/01/2016 at 12:00 AM by Mollie Pawlosky
In an opinion issued on June 29, 2016, the Iowa Court of Appeals emphasized that a defendant must both plead and prove affirmative defenses. In Hope Farms LLC v. Gumm, No. 14-1371 (June 29, 2016), David Gumm appealed from the district court’s entry of judgment regarding a farm lease. Gumm claimed that the district court erred in concluding that he materially breached the lease. Alternatively, Gumm argued that the Plaintiffs could not rely on his breach of contract, because the Plaintiffs waived their right to have Gumm comply with the terms of the contract.
After a bench trial in 2014, the trial court found that Gumm had materially breached the farm lease in several ways, including failing to communicate with the Plaintiffs about the farm operations, failing to obtain written authorization before incurring expenses, and failing to plant the crop in a timely matter. In reviewing the record, the Court of Appeals found sufficient evidence to affirm the trial court’s finding of breach of contract.
As an alternative to his arguments regarding the finding of a breach, Gumm argued that the predecessor to the Plaintiffs had waived the terms of the lease, and that the Plaintiffs, who stepped into the shoes of the prior owner when they bought the land, could not reassert the rights.
Gumm admitted that the specific issue of, “waiver,” was never raised at trial, but he argued that the issue was preserved, because the issue was litigated. Gumm claimed, “trial was a contest over whether the parties could do what they do relative to a contract.” Thus, Gumm essentially asked the Court of Appeals to find that the substance of the waiver argument had been litigated, even if the specific term, “waiver,” was not used.
The Court of Appeals rejected Gumm’s request. Waiver is an affirmative defense that, if not pled, results in waiver of the defense. Even if the defense was not waived, Gumm had to prove waiver by a preponderance of evidence; the Court of Appeals found, “no reference to waiver specifically or prior practices of the [Plaintiff’s predecessor] that could constitute waiver.”
The lesson of Hope Farms LLC v. Gumm is that defendants must make sure to both plead and prove their affirmative defenses. Although Iowa courts typically focus on substance and commonly allow pleadings to be amended, even after trial, “to conform to the proof” of what was actually proven at trial, the safest course is to raise all affirmative defenses clearly, both in pleadings and in submission of evidence.
For further questions regarding Iowa civil procedure or commercial litigation, contact Mollie Pawlosky.
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