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December 14th, 2015 — By — In Articles

Florida Court Upholds Attorneys’ Fees Award for ‘Excessive Litigation’ in Condemnation Cases

When the government takes a private citizen’s land through the exercise of eminent domain, it is obligated to pay the landowner “just compensation” for the property taken. This requirement is established by the Fifth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution and the constitutions in all 50 states, and it serves to protect the fundamental rights of landowners across America.

But, this begs the question: What is just compensation? How is it calculated, and who gets to decide?

The answers to these questions depend on where your property is located. Different states have taken different approaches to determining what constitutes “just compensation,” and in some states, entire categories of losses are off of the table, such as loss of business good will. One category some states include the calculation of “just compensation” is the owners’ reasonable attorneys’ fees incurred in defending his or her property rights in eminent domain litigation.

Attorneys’ Fees and Just Compensation: A State-By-State Issue

Condemnation litigation can be expensive for all parties involved. Unfortunately, individual property owners and businesses may bear the brunt of the financial impact of taking a condemnation case to court.

Recognizing the burdens of litigating eminent domain proceedings, states such as Florida, Michigan, New York and Ohio, have enacted laws that allow property owners to recover attorneys’ fees under certain circumstances. These laws are generally based on the understanding that property owners who are forced to take legal action to defend their property rights against the government should be entitled to recover the costs of their defense as a component of just compensation.

The Florida Supreme Court’s Decision on Attorneys’ Fees for ‘Excessive Litigation’ in Eminent Domain

A recent case from the Florida Supreme Court underscores the important role that attorney fee statutes play for property owners facing condemnation.

In Joseph B. Doerr Trust v. Central Florida Expressway Auth., No. SC14-1007 (Nov. 5, 2015), the property owner succeeded in challenging the Expressway Authority’s offer of just compensation.  The jury awarded $5.7 million – $800,000 above the Expressway Authority’s offer of $4.9 million. The property owner also sought to recover its attorneys’ fees under Florida’s condemnation statute, and the trial court awarded $816,000 in fees to the owner’s eminent domain attorneys.

The Expressway Authority appealed, arguing that under the statute’s “benefits achieved” formula (a percentage of the difference between initial offer and final compensation), the attorneys’ fee award should have been limited to $227,652. After remand and a second appeal, the question made its way to the Florida Supreme Court.

The Florida Supreme Court sided with the property owner. While acknowledging that the state legislature has the authority to establish formulas (like the “benefits achieved” formula) for calculating attorneys’ fees, the Court held that it cannot do so in a way that deprives property owners of their constitutional rights. In Florida, this includes the right to “full compensation” in eminent domain litigation. In this particular case, the lower court found that the Expressway Authority “had engaged in a ‘clear pattern’ of excessive litigation,” and the Court held that this justified an award above and beyond that afforded by the statutory formula.

Of course, in states without attorneys’ fees statutes (such as Hawaii), the property owner may not be able to recover attorneys’ fees. OCA lawyers offer a free initial consultation to property owners facing condemnation or who may be concerned that their property has been affected by government action.  OCA’s eminent domain attorneys will speak with you to gather the facts and will answer your questions about the process and your rights.   There is no fee for this initial consultation.

Contact an Eminent Domain Attorney at Owners’ Counsel of America

Owners’ Counsel of America (OCA) is a network of experienced eminent domain attorneys who represent property owners nationwide. If you are concerned about whether you can afford to hire an eminent domain attorney to represent your property rights in a condemnation proceeding, contact us  to coordinate a free initial consultation.