Amicus Brief Urges Virginia Supreme Court to Correct an Injustice Imposed Upon Virginians in Eminent Domain Trials

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On Monday, Owners’ Counsel of America filed an amicus brief questioning whether the most important evidence in an eminent domain trial – the value of the property taken – can be withheld from a jury and urging Virginia’s Supreme Court to grant a new trial to determine just compensation due to the landowners.

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This case highlights a shocking and unconscionable practice of gamesmanship by Virginia’s Department of Transportation.

The Owners’ Counsel of America (OCA) has filed an amicus curiae brief in support of Virginia Beach homeowners, James and Janet Ramsey, in Ramsey v. Commissioner of Highways, Record No. 140929 (review granted November 3, 2014), urging the Virginia Supreme Court to reverse the judgment of the Virginia Beach Circuit Court and remand the case for a new trial to determine the amount of just compensation required pursuant to the U.S. and Virginia Constitutions.

This case arises from an eminent domain lawsuit initiated by the Virginia Department of Transportation against the Ramseys for the purpose of acquiring a portion of their residential property for improvements to an interstate highway. Before filing the lawsuit and pursuant to Va. Code 25.1-2014(E)(1), Virginia’s Commissioner of Highways provided the homeowners with pre-offer statements of value as well as an appraisal report valuing the land to be taken and damages to the remaining property at $246,292. The Commissioner subsequently offered to purchase the necessary property and the Ramseys refused his offer. To force the acquisition of the Ramseys' land, the Commissioner then filed an eminent domain action - Commonwealth Transportation Commissioner of Virginia v. James M. Ramsey, Jr. and Janet D. Ramsey, Case No.: CL09007102-00, in Virginia Beach Circuit Court.

Judge William O'Brien presided over a jury trial to determine the amount of just compensation due to the Ramseys for the loss of their property. During trial, the Commissioner presented a second appraisal report valuing the property acquired at $92,127. This report was prepared by a different appraiser who relied on portions of the earlier report. The trial judge, however, prohibited the landowners from cross-examining the Commissioner’s appraiser on the basis for his opinions and refused to admit evidence of the earlier statement of value. As a result, the jury was not informed of the Commissioner’s original estimate of just compensation or appraisal. The trial concluded with a jury verdict awarding the Ramseys $234,000 - more than $10,000 less than the Commissioner's statutory pre-condemnation statement of value - requiring the homeowners to repay the difference.

“In this case, the trial court erred by concluding that the Commissioner’s statutorily-required statement of just compensation was merely an offer to settle the dispute over purchase price rather than the required good faith statement and appraisal of value required by Virginia statute,” said Robert H. Thomas, a Director with Damon Key Leong Kupchak Hastert in Honolulu and the Hawaii representative of OCA. “If affirmed, the tactics employed in this case by the Commissioner and Department of Transportation will not only be an injustice upon the Ramseys but will serve as a template for future systemic undercompensation in eminent domain actions across Virginia.”

The Owners’ Counsel of America questions whether the jury can be kept in the dark about the most important evidence in an eminent domain trial – the value of the private property taken. The brief filed by OCA stresses two distinct points. First, the duty of the government in an eminent domain action must be to seek justice and develop a full and fair record upon which a jury may consider the just compensation to be awarded to a property owner whose land has been taken for public use. Second, the statement of just compensation required by Va. Code § 25.1-204(E)(1) is a legislatively-mandated statement requiring factual documentation as to the government’s financial liability to a landowner in an eminent domain proceeding which the jury must be allowed to consider, not an inadmissible offer to compromise.

“Eminent domain has been referred to as the ‘despotic power’ because it is biased in favor of the government and has unlimited potential for abuse,” said Thomas, who contributed to the brief filed by Virginia appellate lawyer, Jeffrey M. Summers. “Because of its potential for abuse, the power of eminent domain should be used sparingly and with respect for the rights of the property owners who are defendants in an eminent domain action simply because they own the land the government desires.”

“This case highlights a shocking and unconscionable practice whereby condemnors punish landowners who refuse to accept an initial offer and rather choose to seek just compensation," explained Cathy Newman, Owners' Counsel of America Executive Director. “If such abusive tactics are allowed to stand, the property rights of all Virginians are at risk.”

ABOUT OWNERS' COUNSEL OF AMERICA:

The Owners’ Counsel of America (OCA) is a nationwide network of experienced eminent domain attorneys dedicated to protecting the rights of private property owners large and small, locally and nationally, and to advancing the cause of property rights. OCA attorneys are in private practice in nearly every state and represent property owners against federal, state, and local governments, utilities, transportation and redevelopment authorities and other entities that may be armed with eminent domain or regulatory powers. For more information or to locate a condemnation lawyer in your state, please visit http://www.ownerscounsel.com.

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Catherine Newman
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