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Columbia Gas Transmission, LLC v. 76 Acres More or Less, In Baltimore and Harford Counties

United States District Court, D. Maryland

September 22, 2014

COLUMBIA GAS TRANSMISSION, LLC, Plaintiff,
v.
76 ACRES MORE OR LESS, IN BALTIMORE AND HARFORD COUNTIES, MARYLAND, ET AL. Defendant.

MEMORANDUM

ELLEN LIPTON HOLLANDER, District Judge.

Plaintiff Columbia Gas Transmission, LLC ("Columbia"), an interstate natural gas company, seeks to exercise its power of eminent domain, as authorized by the Natural Gas Act, 15 U.S.C. § 717f(h), [1] in order to construct 21.5 miles of pipeline through Baltimore County and Harford County in Maryland. Compl. ¶¶ 1, 4, 28, 27, ECF 1. Defendants are landowners, see Compl. ¶¶ 5-24, who unsuccessfully disputed Columbia's right to eminent domain. See Order granting partial summary judgment, "PSJ Order, " ECF 75. The proper measure of just compensation remains in dispute. See, e.g., id. ¶ 10 (trial pending on just compensation).

On June 27, 2014, I issued an Order entitling Columbia to immediate possession of portions of defendants' properties, pending determination of the "appropriate bond amount that Columbia should be required to post as security for each property." See PSJ Order, ECF 75. On July 29, 2014, in response to requests from several landowners for direct payment in lieu of a bond, I asked Columbia to "submit a proposed order to the Court... specifically enumerating the amounts Columbia will pay to the parties...." ECF 92. On August 1, 2014, Columbia asked the Court to reconsider the question of direct payments in lieu of a bond. "Original Motion, " ECF 93. On August 4, 2014, I granted Columbia's motion (ECF 94) and, in a separate Order ("Bond Order, " ECF 95), directed Columbia to deposit funds into the court registry, in the amount of $231, 675, which represented the estimated damages for the properties, and generally corresponded to the compensation offers that Columbia had made to the remaining defendants. See Bond Order, ECF 95 ¶ 9 (setting bond); ECF 82 at 2 ("Columbia takes the position that the appropriate bond amount in this matter is its estimate of just compensation owed to the defendants, represented by the highest written offer made to those property owners."). The Bond Order also permitted the landowners to draw down any funds needed to make "property modifications or repairs to their property as construction of the Line MB property progresses, " on motion to the Court. Bond Order ¶ 10.

Defendants Robert DeGraw, Deborah DeGraw, Lambert G. Boyce, Jr., Ledley Byrd Boyce, and Margaret Kenney have filed motions for reconsideration, in which they ask me to rescind the Bond Order and reinstate the prior Order requiring direct payments to the property owners. See DeGraw Motion, ECF 98; Boyce & Kenney Motion, ECF 99 (collectively, "Motions for Reconsideration"). The five landowners dispute the timing of compensatory payments (ECF 98, ECF 99), and the Boyces and Ms. Kenney also ask the Court to reconsider the scope of the easements granted. ECF 99. Columbia has submitted a consolidated motion in opposition. "Opposition, " ECF 104. Defendants did not reply, and the time to do so has now passed. See Local Rule 105.2(a).

The Motions for Reconsideration are fully briefed, and no hearing is needed to resolve them. See Local Rule 105.6. For the reasons that follow, I will deny the Motions for Reconsideration.

1.

All five landowners have asked the Court to rescind the Bond Order. See generally Motions for Reconsideration. The DeGraws argue that "if Columbia is granted the right to take immediate possession, " then they (the DeGraws) "are entitled to immediate payment for the rights being taken." ECF 98 ¶ 5. The DeGraws believe that "they will be entitled to at least the amount of money estimated by Columbia for the value of the property rights being taken, " and that withholding this amount until final determination at trial is "not equitable." Id. They ask the Court to permit "the defendants... immediate access to the respective amounts of money posted by Columbia without the need to make any showing what[so]ever of need.'" Id. ¶ 9.

The Boyces and Ms. Kenney argue, in relevant part, as follows:

It is one thing for landowners to wait for a trial to resolve the issue of payment of just compensation for property because at least they can still use their property in the interim. It is quite another to force landowners to spend thousands of dollars up front to implement protective measures during construction that Columbia has refused to adopt - and to then be forced to either (a) spend more money on an attorney to chase recovery of those funds in a court proceeding or (b) wait months until a trial to learn whether that money will be recovered at all.

ECF 99 ¶ 12.

In Opposition, Columbia reiterates the central argument advanced in its original motion for reconsideration of my decision regarding direct payments: "Without the fact finder making a final determination about just compensation, the Defendants will not yet be entitled to any amount of money and, prior to that award, there is a risk that a Defendant could draw down more than he or she is ultimately awarded." Opposition, ECF 104 at 6; see also Original Motion, ECF 93 at 4. Columbia asserted in its Original Motion that this result is likely because "settlement offers, which provide the basis for the amounts the Court has directed it to pay, are often much higher than the amounts of just compensation ultimately ordered following condemnation." Id. Columbia explains: "This is because Columbia tries to provide monetary incentive to landowners in order to avoid litigation costs associated with condemnation cases." Id.

In direct response to the DeGraws' argument in ECF 99 ¶ 6, Columbia adds that "pre-suit negotiations represent offers of compromise, which are not admissible to prove the validity or amount of a disputed claim.'" Opposition, ECF 104 at 4 (quoting Fed.R.Evid. 408(a)). Thus, "any amount offered to the DeGraws or any other Defendant in such an offer of compromise" is not legally binding on Columbia in any final determination of compensation. Id. In other words, it claims that the DeGraws erroneously believe that they are entitled to the sum offered by Columbia in settlement negotiations.

In my view, Columbia's arguments in Opposition are as persuasive today as they were in its Original Motion. The DeGraws' belief that they are already entitled to a discernable sum is, as Columbia points out, mistaken. See Fed.R.Evid. 408(a). As to the arguments of the Boyces and Ms. Kenney with respect to the cost of protective measures that Columbia refuses to implement, and their claim that they are "forced" to "wait months until a trial to learn whether that money will be recovered at all, " ECF 99 ¶ 12, the delays inherent in litigation are unfortunate. But, this is not a basis to grant the requested relief.

I also note that the DeGraws appear to believe that the "just compensation" they are due includes compensation for three different components: "damages caused to the property by Columbia by its use of the property"; the "fair market value of the property rights"; and "the value of the right to use the owner's property to construct its gas pipeline." DeGraw Motion, ECF 98 ¶ 3. In the context of eminent domain cases, "just compensation" is a legal term of art, which generally means that the owner of property taken by eminent domain is entitled to the fair market value of the property. See, e.g., U.S. v. Miller, 317 U.S. 369, 374 (1943) (in awarding just compensation, "[t]he owner has been said to be entitled to... the fair market value' of what is taken"); "just compensation, " BLACK'S LAW DICTIONARY 343 (10th ed. 2014) ("Under the Fifth Amendment, a payment by the government for property it has taken under eminent domain - usu. the property's fair ...


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