Friday, July 17, 2020
California Supreme Court:
Eminent Domain Procedure Inapplicable to Inverse Condemnation
By Sandra Hong, Staff Writer
A procedural mechanism intended to facilitate swift settlements in eminent domain cases by gaining a pretrial determination of reasonable compensation cannot be used in inverse condemnation actions, the California Supreme Court held yesterday.
Justice Joshua P. Groban wrote for a unanimous court in affirming a decision of Div. Three of the Fourth District Court of Appeal which disapproved of Orange Superior Court Judge Kirk H. Nakamura’s “borrowing” of a procedural tool available in eminent domain actions. Nakamura summarily determined the non-liability of the defendants in a dispute between private property owners and state and county transportation authorities, Groban said, commenting:
“[I]t is important to remember that summary judgment, summary adjudication, and bench trials play a central role in our civil trial system. Trial courts should exercise caution before dispensing with these procedures.”
He added that while trial courts do indeed have authority “to devise and utilize procedures appropriate to the specific litigation before them,” they cannot borrow a rule of procedure where an existing one is available.
Three residents living next to a stretch of Interstate 5 filed an inverse condemnation suit claiming two sound walls constructed by the Orange County Transportation Authority and the Department of Transportation deflected freeway noise, dust, and headlight glare onto their properties.
The public entities filed a motion asking the trial court to resolve issues of fact under the authority of Code of Civil Procedure §1260.040. Nakamura granted that motion.
On appeal, Div. Three of the Fourth District reversed the decision in an opinion by Justice Richard M. Aronson which concluded that the trial court improperly created “a novel summary mechanism” for determining inverse condemnation liability.
Public Entities’ Contentions
The public entities had argued that allowing §1260.040 to be used in this manner would promote its broader policy objective, which was to encourage timely resolution of land-taking disputes. But Groban, in yesterday’s decision, pointed to a distinction between the two types of actions.
“The public entity concedes liability at the outset of an eminent domain action,” he wrote.
For this reason, he said, eminent domain actions are typically focused on how much property owners should be compensated.
“By contrast, an inverse condemnation action proceeds under the rules governing ordinary civil actions,” Groban said. “A property owner initiates an inverse condemnation action by filing a complaint in the trial court after the alleged taking has already occurred.”
Groban’s opinion examined the legislative intent behind §1260.040, saying that it was designed to “facilitate resolution of eminent domain cases without the need for trial.”
“Because the public entity’s liability is established at the outset of an eminent domain action, the Legislature did not contemplate that a §1260.040 motion would be used to dispose of an eminent domain action in its entirety.”
Groban called the agencies’ request to “judicially import” §1260.040 to an inverse condemnation proceeding as “unusual.” Nothing in the statutory language or legislative history suggested it was intended to be used in inverse condemnation actions, he wrote, adding that “the agencies have not suggested that any other statutory or constitutional rule requires such a procedure to exists in inverse condemnation practice.”
The case is Weiss v. People ex rel. Dept. of Transportation, S248141.
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