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Johns Marrs Ellis & Hodge, LLP, partners Justin Hodge and Luke Ellis testified in front of the Texas Senate Committee on State Affairs on March 9, 2015, in favor of a bill that would better protect landowners in eminent domain proceedings and help ensure that the fear of legal fees would not prevent landowners from seeking just compensation for their property.
Senate Bill 474, proposed by Senator Lois Kolkhorst, R — Brenham, would require those seeking to acquire property to reimburse landowners for their attorney’s fees if the award by the special commissioners exceeds the condemnor’s offer for the property prior to the proceedings by at least 10 percent.* The bill would also require reimbursement of attorney’s fees if the case moves beyond the special commissioners’ hearing to court and the award exceeds the condemnor’s offer prior to the proceeding by at least 10 percent.
Ellis and Hodge were the first among the five individuals
invited to testify in front of the Texas Senate Committee on State Affairs. Ellis opened the testimonies by describing a situation in which a landowner purchases a piece of land for $300,000. The landowner then builds a home on the land and spends $200,000 on construction, bringing the landowner’s total cost to $500,000.
An entity wants to use that land for a project that would serve some public purpose, and that entity offers the landowner $300,000. The landowner, knowing the amount he or she has spent on the property, then seeks legal counsel from an attorney. The attorney fights the case for a period of one to four years, at the end of which a jury awards the landowner $500,000.
“Has that landowner recovered in full for the benefit that [his or her] land has provided to our entire community?” Ellis asked the committee after setting up his example. “The answer, under the Texas system as it exists today, is a very definitive no.”
Ellis stated that the landowner does not recover in full in this process because of the attorney’s fees and legal costs required to combat low offers in court, especially when the landowner has to pay for experts and appraisals to counter the condemnor’s experts and appraisals. Ellis then went on to read the language in both the 5th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution that requires condemning authorities to give landowners just compensation for their properties and Article 1, Section 17 of the Texas Constitution that requires adequate compensation.
“But, in Texas, as the system exists, you don’t get just compensation or adequate compensation,” Ellis said. “You get adequate compensation less the cost it takes you to achieve adequate compensation, and that’s not a fair system for Texas landowners.”
The debate on SB 474 centers on whether the bill would have a fiscal impact on the government and increase the cost of condemnation. When presenting her bill, Senator Kolkhorst stated that the bill would not significantly increase costs to the government, and Ellis agreed with this in his testimony. Ellis said this bill would decrease litigation as it would incentivize condemning authorities to make a fair offer that landowners would want to accept initially.
“Condemnors have absolutely no incentive to treat landowners fairly. They’re a business. There is no penalty to make low offers to start,” Ellis said of the current system, adding that condemning entities often make low offers to “wash away” those afraid of a legal battle.
Ellis also described the abuse of power that often occurs in these legal battles as condemnors who can afford to run up legal costs and/or expert fees often do so to tire the landowner’s financial resources and ability to fight low offers.
“We believe [SB 474] is the first and a very strong step in trying to balance the scale,” Ellis said.
Hodge also testified and gave a personal testimony of his family’s experience in an eminent-domain proceeding. His family owned a ranch near the Bell-Williamson county line, and his grandfather had spent his lifetime drilling more than 70 water wells on that ranch looking for water to feed their livestock.
Hodge’s grandfather passed away, and Hodge’s father found seven commercial-grade water wells on the property. Hodge’s family contracted with local communities to make use of those water wells until the State of Texas, through the Department of Transportation (“TxDOT”), decided to build a safety rest stop on the ranch in 2006.
“They wanted 28 acres, and, in fact, they were taking the property where six of those seven commercial water wells existed,” Hodge said. “That was a shock to us. We begged and pleaded with TxDOT to move the safety rest stop.”
TxDOT did not move the location of the rest stop. Hodge’s family fought the state’s $350,000 offer for six years. The state did not include any compensation for the water underneath their property in its offer and argued that the water underneath the property did not belong to the landowners, a position that Hodge said ran contrary to nearly a century of case law in Texas.
The Hodge family case went in front of a jury of six people in Bell County, who awarded the family $5.8 million as just compensation for their loss of the water and land.
“You’re probably asking, ‘Well, aren’t you made whole? Isn’t your family made whole in that situation?’ And, the answer is no,” Hodge said to the committee. “We had to pay, as a family, more than $2 million in attorney fees to get that $5.8 million, and that doesn’t include expert costs associated with [the legal battle]. That was money my grandfather had worked hard for to pay for college educations for his great grandchildren, my father’s grandchildren, and my children.”
“This is a bill that will help landowners like my family, landowners…who have to bear a huge cost for the community” Hodge added. “[SB 474] stops abuse.”
Senator Kolkhorst modeled the bill after similar bills in effect in other states in an effort to help stop this abuse.
“The spirit of SB 474 is just to say, if you need to, you can access the courts,” Kolkhorst said. “And, if you were wronged, those fees will be paid by those who wronged you.”
SB 474 is currently pending in the Texas Senate Committee on State Affairs. If passed as currently written, the bill would go in effect September of 2015.
*In Texas, if a landowner and the condemning authority cannot agree to an amount for the property, a panel of three court-appointed special commissioners will determine an award for the property. If either party objects to the award, the case then proceeds to a court where a judge or jury determines the fair-market value of the property in question.
If you want to hear Ellis and Hodge’s testimonies, please visit http://youtu.be/H9psHmXLexw. If you have any questions about SB 474, please feel free to contact Justin Hodge at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Co-authored by Justin Hodge and Ayla Syed.