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Montgomery County v. Soleimanzadeh

Court of Appeals of Maryland

December 23, 2013

MONTGOMERY COUNTY, Maryland
v.
Khana SOLEIMANZADEH, et al. Montgomery County, Maryland
v.
Joseph Soleimanzadeh.

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Robert Birenbaum, Associate County Atty. (Marc P. Hansen, County Atty., Edward B. Lattner, Chief and Eric Willis, Associate County Atty., Rockville, MD), on brief, for petitioner.

No argument on behalf of the Respondent.

Argued before BARBERA, C.J., HARRELL, BATTAGLIA, GREENE, ADKINS, McDONALD and IRMA S. RAKER (Retired, Specially Assigned), JJ.

HARRELL, J.

[436 Md. 381] These two eminent domain cases were disposed of by the Circuit Court for Montgomery County by the entry of summary judgment, pursuant to Maryland Rule 2-501, in favor of the condemnor, Petitioner, Montgomery County, Maryland (the " County" ). The facts in these cases are largely identical (except as noted) and, thus, we are able to answer in a consolidated opinion the questions presented. Earlier in the proceedings of both cases, the Circuit Court imposed discovery violation sanctions precluding the respective landowners, Respondents Khana Soleimanzadeh and Joseph Soleimanzadeh (the " Soleimanzadehs" ) in No. 25 and Respondent Joseph Soleimanzadeh in No. 27, from introducing any evidence as to the fair market value of the taken properties. Because of these sanctions, the Respondents were unable to generate through affirmative evidence a genuine dispute of material [436 Md. 382] fact concerning the County's appraisal valuations of the taken properties in either case. Thus, the Circuit Court granted the County's Motions for Summary Judgment on the issue of just compensation in both cases.

In No. 25, the Court of Special Appeals held, in a reported opinion, that the Circuit Court erred in granting summary judgment. Soleimanzadeh v. Montgomery County, 208 Md.App. 107, 56 A.3d 349 (2012). The court reasoned that summary judgment is not available in condemnation proceedings on the question of just compensation because a landowner cannot be deprived of the constitutional right to have a jury determine just compensation. In No. 27, the Court of Special Appeals, in an unreported opinion, adopted the reasoning and holding of the reported opinion in No. 25. In this consolidated opinion, we reverse both judgments and hold that summary judgment was available in each case and was granted properly.

FACTS

In 2007, the County took a portion of the subject properties, one owned by Joseph Soleimanzadeh and the other owned by the Soleimanzadehs collectively, [1] for the purpose

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of road improvement, pursuant to an Advance Take Action authorized by § 49-50 of the Montgomery County Code and Art. III, § 40A of the Maryland Constitution. After the parties were unable to agree upon the value to be paid for either of the takings, the County filed a Complaint for Condemnation in the Circuit Court on 10 April 2009, pursuant to Maryland Rule 12-205, in each case. Because the proceedings in the Circuit Court were identical in these cases, we review in detail only the facts presented in the Soleimanzadehs's case below and, to avoid repetition, simply note that the proceedings in the Circuit [436 Md. 383] Court were identical or parallel, for all relevant purposes of this appeal, for the case of Joseph Soleimanzadeh.

On 5 October 2009, the County served the Soleimanzadehs with written discovery in the form of interrogatories and a request for the production of documents. Pursuant to Maryland Rules 2-421(b) and 2-422(c), the Soleimanzadehs's responses were due on 7 November 2009. On 6 November 2009, the day before the Soleimanzadehs's responses were due, counsel for the Soleimanzadehs advised the County that the discovery requests had been misplaced and not re-discovered until 5 November 2009.[2] Counsel requested a forty-five day extension to comply fully with the requests. The County agreed. On 14 December 2009, according to the County's later Motion to Compel and/or for Sanctions, the Soleimanzadehs's counsel advised the County that they " would not file any responses to the discovery requests served by the County" and that the County should " go to the court."

After the expiration of the initial and sole forty-five day extension, the County filed its Motion to Compel and/or for Sanctions on 23 December 2009. [3] The Soleimanzadehs did not file a response. On 25 January 2010, the Circuit Court granted the County's unopposed motion, entering an order on 27 January 2010 that directed the Soleimanzadehs to file complete responses to the requested discovery within ten days [436 Md. 384] of the entry of the order. The order directed further that, if the Soleimanzadehs did not do so within the aforementioned ten days, they " shall not be permitted to introduce any evidence in support of their claims for just compensation and damages." The Soleimanzadehs failed to file any responses to the requested discovery within the ten days of the entry of the order. Accordingly, the sanctions would become self-executing had the matter come to trial.

While the County's Motion to Compel and/or for Sanctions was pending, the County filed a Motion for Partial Summary Judgment on 15 January 2010 as to three issues, each averred to be improper for a

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jury's determination: " (1) public purpose and necessity, (2) the amount of area taken and entitlement to compensation, and (3) the right to condemn and legality of this condemnation proceeding." [4] With regard to the issue of just compensation, the County requested that " the Court submit the issue of just compensation to be awarded to [the Soleimanzadehs] for the property rights taken to the jury." The Circuit Court held a hearing on this motion on 31 March 2010 and granted the Motion for Summary Judgment as to public purpose and necessity, but denied other relief at that point in time.

On 26 April 2010, the scheduled date of trial, the County filed a Motion for Summary Judgment or, in the Alternative, for Judgment by Default, on the issue of just compensation and damages on the grounds that the Soleimanzadehs were unable to present any evidence of value of the taken property greater than the appraisal value proposed by the County due [436 Md. 385] to the recently imposed discovery sanctions. The Circuit Court heard arguments on that same day and entered an Order on 3 May 2010, condemning the property and awarding the Soleimanzadehs $35,000, the amount proffered by the County's expert witness in an affidavit filed with the County's motion, as just compensation for the taking of the real property. On the same day, the Circuit Court entered an Order condemning Joseph Soleimanzadeh's property and awarding him $52,000.

Joseph Soleimanzadeh and the Soleimanzadehs, with new counsel in tow, appealed to the Court of Special Appeals the grant of the County's motions for summary judgment in both cases. Notably, neither Joseph Soleimanzadeh nor the Soleimanzadehs challenged in their appeals the Circuit Court's imposition of discovery sanctions. On 26 November 2012, the Court of Special Appeals, in a reported opinion, reversed the Circuit Court's grant of summary judgment in the Soleimanzadehs's case. Soleimanzadeh v. Montgomery County, 208 Md.App. 107, 56 A.3d 349 (2012). The intermediate court held in Soleimanzadeh:

Although the rules of civil procedure apply to condemnation proceedings in general, we hold that the summary judgment rule, Rule 2-501, does not apply in such cases to the issue of just compensation, because a landowner cannot be deprived of the constitutional right to have a jury award just compensation. In the instant case, the trial court's grant of the County's motion for summary judgment had the effect of denying the Soleimanzadehs their constitutional right to an award of just compensation by a jury, and thus the court erred in so doing.

Id., 208 Md.App. at 134, 56 A.3d at 365. In the case of Joseph Soleimanzadeh, the Court of Special Appeals, in an unreported opinion, reversed the Circuit Court's grant of summary judgment, adopting the reasoning of Soleimanzadeh v. Montgomery County, 208 Md.App. 107, 56 A.3d 349 (2012).

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The County petitioned this Court for writs of certiorari in each case and we granted the petitions, 430 Md. 644, 62 A.3d 730 (2013), to consider the following questions:

[436 Md. 386] (1) Where there is no genuine dispute of material fact as to the valuation of a property taken in an eminent domain proceeding, may the trial court enter judgment pursuant to MD Rule 2-501 in favor of the condemnor as a matter of law?
(2) Does a condemnee have a constitutionally protected right to have a jury determine just compensation even when sanctions against the condemnee prohibit the condemnee from introducing evidence in support of a claim for just compensation and the condemnee fails to show the existence of a dispute of material fact as to the compensation to be awarded?
(3) Does a condemnee have a burden to produce evidence when it disputes a condemnor's estimate of fair market value?
(4) Did the award of summary judgment in favor of the condemnor impair the condemnees' right to a jury trial?
(5) Can the right to a jury trial in an eminent domain proceeding be waived by the landowner's failure to follow clearly proscribed rules?

On 25 September 2013 (after we issued our writ), a letter from the combined Soleimanzadehs's counsel, dated 17 September 2013, was received asking that this Court treat the letter as a motion for the following relief in each case: " (1) That [this Court] accept the briefs [counsel] filed in the Court of Special Appeals as meeting [his] brief-filing requirements in this Court; and (2) That [counsel] be allowed to appear for oral argument. If [this Court] den[ies] my proposed relief, then [counsel is] willing to stand on the briefs [counsel] filed in the Court of Special Appeals and on Judge Woodward's opinion." In response, the County filed a letter opposing this request for several reasons, namely, that Joseph Soleimanzadeh's and the Soleimanzadehs's Briefs filed in the Court of Special Appeals were not responsive to the County's Brief filed in this Court and addressed issues that are not within the ambit of the questions presented in this Court and, lastly, that, if the Respondents' request to appear for oral argument [436 Md. 387] is granted, the County may be forced to confront arguments by Respondents' counsel that the County has not seen first in writing prior to the argument date. On 26 September 2013, the Court denied the relief sought by the Soleimanzadehs and Joseph Soleimanzadeh. Consequently, no briefs were filed with this Court by Respondents. At oral arguments, we heard solely from the County.

ANALYSIS

This Court must determine first whether the Circuit Court was permitted to grant summary judgment on the issue of just compensation in a condemnation proceeding. The Court of Special Appeals held in its reported opinion in Soleimanzadeh that " the summary judgment rule, Rule 2-501, does not apply in [condemnation proceedings] to the issue of just compensation, because a landowner cannot be deprived of the constitutional right to have a jury award just compensation." Soleimanzadeh, 208 Md.App. at 134, 56 A.3d at 365. We reverse the Court of Special Appeals and hold that the summary judgment rule may apply in condemnation proceedings to the issue of just compensation because Article III, § 40 of the Maryland Constitution provides the landowner with the opportunity to have a jury award just compensation in such cases, provided the

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landowner litigates properly the case according to the Maryland Rules. Next, we review whether summary judgment was granted properly in these specific cases. We conclude that, because the Soleimanzadehs were precluded from introducing any evidence as to the value of the taken property (an essential element of their claim in the condemnation action), the granting of summary judgment was indeed proper.[5]

[436 Md. 388]I. The Issue of Just Compensation in Condemnation Proceedings Is Subject to the Maryland Rules of Civil Procedure, Including ...


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