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A Better Partnership
July 08, 2015

COA: No clear error where trial court makes findings of fact and evidentiary evaluations under MCR 2.504(B)(2)

In Township of Williamstown v. Hudson, No. 321306, the Court of Appeals held that the trial court did not err in evaluating the credibility of the appellant’s evidence and making factual findings, which it was permitted to do under MCR 2.504(B)(2).  The trial court also did not err in holding that Michigan’s Right to Farm Act (RTFA) did not shield appellant’s family farm from conflicting local zoning ordinances.
 
Appellant Jeremiah Hudson and his wife owned and operated a family farm that included a variety of livestock in Williamstown Township.  The animals were undisputedly not permitted on Hudson’s residentially-zoned property.  The Township informed Hudson that his farm violated zoning ordinances, though Hudson continued his operation nonetheless.  The Township filed suit and requested injunctive relief, alleging a nuisance per se based on Hudson’s violation of the ordinances.  Both parties moved for summary disposition.  Hudson asserted that his farm complied with the RTFA, exempting him from local zoning ordinances.  The Township, meanwhile, argued that the RTFA was inapplicable as the zoning ordinances predated the farm and the farm was not in compliance with the generally accepted agricultural management practices (GAAMPs) required for the RTFA exemption to apply.
 
At Hudson’s request, the parties’ summary disposition hearing was adjourned while the trial court granted Hudson’s request to present proofs.  At that hearing, Mrs. Hudson testified that the couple complied with the Environmental Manager’s demands and stated certain facts in contradiction to her earlier affidavit.  The trial court held that the Hudsons failed to establish an affirmative defense under the RTFA, and that the township had proved a nuisance per se.
 
The trial court cited five Michigan Court Rules governing its decision.  The Court of Appeals found that the only applicable rule supporting the court’s holding was MCR 2.504(B)(2), which governs involuntary dismissal.  MCR 2.504(B)(2) required the Court of Appeals to review the issuance of the injunction and applicability of the RTFA de novo, and to review the trial court’s factual findings and credibility judgments for clear error.
 
Hudson claimed that his farm complied with all applicable GAAMPs, citing his wife’s testimony.  Because MCR 2.504(B)(2) controlled, however, the trial court was not required to resolve factual disputes in Hudson’s favor.  Rather, the trial court could make its own factual findings and credibility determinations, and it properly did so.  The trial court found Mrs. Hudson’s testimony incredible based on her statements that contradicted her affidavit.  The court also noted that in any event Mrs. Hudson admitted during her testimony that the farm had never received GAAMP verification, a necessary part of qualifying for the RTFA exemption.
 
The court also rejected Hudson’s challenge to the injunction, as the trial court was permitted to make credibility judgments and findings of fact in whether Hudson proved the RTFA defense.  The trial court’s findings on that issue were not clearly erroneous.

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