July 17th, 2014 — By — In News & Events
Georgia Supreme Court Victory for Private Property Owners
Last week, the Supreme Court of Georgia issued an opinion in Dillard Land Investments, LLC v. Fulton County, Georgia, case No. S13C1582 (decided July 11, 2014) resulting in a ruling both favorable to the Petitioner-landowner and property owners across Georgia. The unanimous opinion reversed a Georgia Court of Appeals decision, reinstated a $5,187,500 award of just compensation for the Petitioner and insured that equity remains in Georgia’s eminent domain proceedings.
This case involves the taking of private property by the County of Fulton under Georgia’s special master method for condemnation proceedings pursuant to O.C.G.A. § 22-2-2. Under this method, a special master is appointed to hear testimony relating to the value of the property taken by eminent domain and determines the amount of just compensation to award a property owner for the property acquired. The purpose of the special master method is “to quicken and simplify the condemnation proceeding…” (O.C.G.A.22-2-107 (g)).
In the Dillard case, the special master filed an award with the trial court which then entered a judgment adopting the award. Fulton County filed a voluntary dismissal of the condemnation petition two days after the entry of the judgment. Dillard responded by filing an emergency motion to vacate and set aside the voluntary dismissal, which the trial court granted. Neither party appealed for a de novo jury determination of value. On interlocutory appeal by Fulton County, the Georgia Court of Appeals reversed the trial court’s order setting aside the voluntarily dismissal.
The Georgia Supreme Court found that the appellate court erred in allowing Fulton County to unilaterally dismiss a condemnation action after entry of the special master’s award of compensation. The Court concluded that the relevant event determining the time at which a voluntary and unilateral dismissal by the government is no longer allowable “is when the condemnor knows what the value award will be.” In the Dillard case, that event occurred before the County moved to dismiss the action.
OCA previously filed an amicus brief in this case urging the Supreme Court to overturn a Court of Appeals decision which permitted Fulton County to unilaterally dismiss a condemnation suit after learning the amount of just compensation awarded to the landowner following a valuation hearing before a special master. Charles L. Ruffin, a shareholder with Baker, Donelson, Bearman, Caldwell & Berkowitz, PC and the Georgia representative of OCA filed the brief on behalf of OCA. OCA’s brief argued that, if the appellate decision became final it would unfairly disadvantage property owners in eminent domain proceedings by allowing condemnors the opportunity for a “do-over” if the condemnor was dissatisfied with a special master’s award.
“The Georgia Supreme Court affirmed that no condemnor should have an inequitable advantage over individual landowners,” said Ruffin. “Had the Court of Appeals decision been allowed to stand, condemnors would have effectively been given two shots at trying a condemnation case.”
“The Dillard decision is a victory for Georgia property owners and insures that condemnation proceedings remain fair and equitable for landowners throughout Georgia.”