United States District Court, S.D. Alabama, Southern Division
October 22, 2014
UNITED STATES OF AMERICA, Plaintiff,
74.57 ACRES OF LAND, MORE OR LESS, LOCATED IN EVERGREEN, CONECUH COUNTY, STATE OF ALABAMA; SUE S. CRAMER; STOWERS TIMBERLANDS, L.L.C., et al., Defendants.
WILLIAM H. STEELE, Chief District Judge.
This matter comes before the Court on the parties' respective position memoranda (docs. 108 & 109) concerning the manner in which just compensation should be determined at trial.
In this federal condemnation case, Magistrate Judge Nelson entered a Scheduling Order (doc. 71) fixing a deadline of September 26, 2014 for the parties "to file pleadings setting forth their positions on how compensation should be determined." (Doc. 71, ¶ 2.) In so doing, Judge Nelson observed that, back on May 15, 2012, defendants Sue S. Cramer and Stowers Timberlands, LLC, had filed a document in which they "demand a trial by jury on the issue of just compensation in this condemnation case." (Doc. 18.) She also noted that Rule 71.1(h) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure creates an alternative mechanism, under which just compensation may be determined via a three-person land commission. With the February 2015 trial setting fast approaching, and with the parties apparently unable or unwilling to agree as to who the arbiter of just compensation should be at trial, Judge Nelson prudently brought the issue to the forefront by having the parties submit dueling briefs on the subject.
The Government's Position is that "[t]he most efficient option in this case for trial is a bench trial" (doc. 108, at 7), but that this option is unavailable unless defendants withdraw their timely jury demand. The Government further states its view that "trial by land commission would not be appropriate under the circumstances of this case." ( Id. at 1.) By contrast, defendants' Position does not hold out even a glimmer of hope that defendants might withdraw their jury demand, but instead asserts that "there exist[s] just reason for the court to appoint a three-person commission to hear the evidence and assess just compensation." (Doc. 109, at 2.)
This question is governed by Rule 71.1, which provides that, "[i]n an action involving eminent domain under federal law, the court tries all issues, including compensation, except when compensation must be determined... by a jury when a party demands one within the time to answer..., unless the court appoints a commission." Rule 71.1(h)(1)(B), Fed.R.Civ.P. Regarding the appointment of a commission, the rule elaborates that "[i]f a party has demanded a jury, the court may instead appoint a three-person commission to determine compensation because of the character, location, or quantity of the property to be condemned or for other just reasons." Rule 71.1(h)(2)(A). Because defendants have made a timely jury demand that they have shown no inclination to withdraw, the option of a bench trial is unavailable here; therefore, the only remaining decision is whether just compensation will be determined by a jury or by a three-person land commission.
On its face, Rule 71.1 provides that even where a party has demanded a jury, the court may appoint a land commission to make the just compensation determination "because of the character, location, or quantity of the property to be condemned or for other just reasons." Rule 71.1(h)(2)(A). The Eleventh Circuit has explained that "[t]he Federal Rules of Civil Procedure specifically provide for the appointment of commissioners in lieu of a jury... in condemnation actions in which the district court determines that the ends of justice best would be served by foregoing trial by jury." Alabama Power Co. v. 1354.02 Acres, More or Less, of Land in Randolph County, Ala., 709 F.2d 666, 666-67 (11th Cir. 1983). Whether to appoint a commission or to allow compensation to be determined by a jury is left to the district court's sound discretion. See, e.g., Georgia Power Co. v. 138.30 Acres of Land, 596 F.2d 644, 647 (5th Cir. 1979) ("Subdivision (h) of Rule [71.1]... gives the court discretion... to order the use of a commission to determine the compensation due.").
For purposes of exercising that discretion, the rule provides guidance that appointment of a commission may be appropriate "because of the character, location, or quantity of the property to be condemned or for other just reasons." Rule 71.1(h)(2)(A). Applying this rule, the Eleventh Circuit observed that an eminent domain case involving "over 500 tracts of property spread over seven counties and 122 miles, is precisely what the drafters... had in mind in listing exemplary reasons for denying jury trials (character, location, and quantity)." Southern Natural Gas Co. v. Land, Cullman County, 197 F.3d 1368, 1373 (11th Cir. 1999); see also United States v. 320.0 Acres of Land, More or Less in Monroe County, State of Fla., 605 F.2d 762, 828 (5th Cir. 1979) ("In light of the number of parcels involved in these condemnation proceedings, the remoteness of these parcels from any federal courthouse in which a jury trial might be conducted, and the complexity of the issues, this certainly is one of those exceptional cases in which trial by a commission is not only appropriate, but is required in the interest of justice.") (internal quotation marks omitted). Consistent with these authorities and the text of the rule, commentators have opined that the practice that is and should be followed "is for the district judges to make reference to a commission in any case in which they believe there is reason for preferring that method to a jury trial." Wright, Miller & Marcus, 12 Federal Practice & Procedure: Civil 2d § 3051 (citation omitted).
The straightforward question presented, then, is whether there is reason in this case for preferring the three-person commission method of determining just compensation over the jury method. Defendants, as the parties requesting appointment of a commission, cite generically to "the character, location and quantity of the property to be condemned as well as the nature and quantity of the property being affected by this condemnation." (Doc. 109, ¶ 4 (internal quotation marks omitted).) However, they do not elaborate or explain what aspect of the character, location and quantity of the subject property being condemned in this case favors appointment of a three-person commission. The information before the Court is that this action involves a singular, 74.57-acre strip of land that is part of a single tract owned by a single set of defendants in Evergreen, Alabama. This case does not involve numerous tracts of land scattered over a wide geographic area and encompassing numerous landowners at an inordinate distance from the federal courthouse. The parties have not identified any particular complexities unique to valuation in this case (such that there might be a benefit to leveraging the special experience and expertise of a three-person commission), or any other reasons why the interests of justice would favor appointment of a commission. In short, the Court lacks any specific information from which to conclude that utilization of a land commission to determine just compensation in this case would produce a fairer, faster, more efficient, or more just result than a jury would. Left with no case-specific basis for determining that the interests of justice would be better served by appointment of a land commission rather than a trial by jury, the Court will exercise its discretion not to appoint such a commission.
For all of the foregoing reasons, defendants' request for appointment of a three-person commission to hear the evidence and assess just compensation in this condemnation case is denied. Defendants' exercise of their right to jury trial pursuant to Rule 71.1(h)(1)(B) will be honored, subject to their right to withdraw such a jury demand. Accordingly, unless defendants withdraw their jury demand via court filing on or before November 21, 2014, the issue of just compensation will be submitted to a jury at trial, with all other issues being for the Court to decide, pursuant to Rule 71.1(h)(1). If defendants timely withdraw their jury demand, then all issues (including just compensation) will be decided by the Court via bench trial.