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Sima Properties, L.L.C. v. Cooper

Alabama Court of Civil Appeals

April 7, 2017

Sima Properties, L.L.C.
v.
John R. Cooper, in his official capacity as Director of the Alabama Department of Transportation, and the City of Prattville

         Appeal from Montgomery Circuit Court (CV-16-900200)

          THOMPSON, Presiding Judge.

         Sima Properties, L.L.C. ("Sima"), appeals from two separate judgments entered by the Montgomery Circuit Court ("the trial court") dismissing Sima's inverse-condemnation action against John R. Cooper, in his official capacity as the director of the Alabama Department of Transportation ("ALDOT"), and the City of Prattville ("the city").

         In its complaint, Sima alleged that it owns a gasoline station at the corner of Alabama Highway 14 and Old Farm Road within the geographical boundaries of the city. Sima averred that its customers had had access to the gasoline station from Highway 14 by the use of a driveway. However, in November 2014, Sima said, the driveway was closed when ALDOT and the city "altered the construction of Highway 14 by creating another road and an intersection in close proximity to [Sima's] access way onto said Highway 14 and closed [Sima's] direct access to Alabama Highway 14." Sima claimed that the construction project terminated what Sima said were its easement rights and its right of access. Sima also alleged that the value of its property was diminished and that its property had been taken without due process of law. It further asserted that Cooper and the city had acted fraudulently, in bad faith, beyond their respective authorities, or under a mistaken interpretation of the law in exercising dominion over Sima's property rights. Sima sought compensation for the property it claimed it had lost, as well as litigation expenses, and an order requiring Cooper and the city to restore its direct access to Highway 14.

         Cooper filed a motion to dismiss Sima's complaint pursuant to Rule 12(b)(1) and (6), Ala. R. Civ. P., on the grounds that he had sovereign immunity under Article 1, § 14, Ala. Const. 1901, and that the complaint failed to state a claim upon which relief could be granted. The trial court would lack subject-matter jurisdiction over the claims asserted against Cooper if Cooper were found to have sovereign immunity. Ex parte Alabama Dep't of Transp., 978 So.2d 17, 26 (Ala. 2007). Cooper attached an affidavit and supporting exhibits to his motion to dismiss. The city also filed a motion to dismiss, arguing that Sima failed to state a claim upon which relief could be granted. Specifically, the city asserted that ALDOT owns the property at issue and that Sima has no right of ownership or possession to that property. In its motion, the city relied on the information stated in the affidavit and the exhibits attached to Cooper's motion. The city did not include an evidentiary submission of its own.

         The affidavit Cooper submitted was that of Philip Shamburger, the acting bureau chief of ALDOT's right-of-way bureau. In that affidavit, Shamburger explained that, in his position, he was responsible for, among other things, oversight of ALDOT's right-of-way acquisition process and served as custodian of right-of-way records. Shamburger stated that in May 1970 ALDOT filed a condemnation petition in the Autauga Probate Court "for property owned by George L. Yarbrough and others to purchase real estate for 'public use as a right of way for the construction and maintenance of a public road'" as identified by a certain project number. After a hearing on the petition, the probate court entered an order condemning the property. That order was appealed to the circuit court. After a trial, Shamburger said, the circuit court entered a judgment of condemnation, which included the property at issue. Yarbrough and the others who owned the property were awarded $56, 460.90 for the property. Shamburger attached the probate-court and circuit-court judgments as exhibits to his affidavit. He also attached a map, which he said was maintained in ALDOT's ordinary course of business, showing the property at issue. According to the map, Shamburger said, the property from the entrance of Sima's gasoline station to Highway 14 is owned by ALDOT for the purpose of providing a right-of-way for construction and maintenance of a public road.

         Sima filed an opposition to both motions to dismiss. After a hearing on Cooper's and the city's motions, the trial court entered separate judgments dismissing Sima's claims. As to Cooper's motion, the trial court found that he was entitled to sovereign immunity both as to claims seeking damages and as to claims seeking injunctive relief. The trial court also found that Sima did not have an ownership interest in the property at issue and that, therefore, it could not bring a valid inverse-condemnation claim. As to the city's motion, the trial court relied on the evidentiary materials attached to Cooper's motion to find that ALDOT, and not Sima, owned the property at issue. The trial court determined that, because Sima's property was not taken, it could not prove a set of facts upon which relief could be granted. Accordingly, the trial court also dismissed Sima's claims against the city.

         Sima filed a motion to alter, amend, or "revise" the judgments, pursuant to Rule 59, Ala. R. Civ. P. The trial court denied the motion. Sima then appealed both judgments to the Alabama Supreme Court, which transferred the appeal to this court pursuant to § 12-2-7(6), Ala. Code 1975.

         On appeal, Sima contends that the trial court erred in dismissing its action against Cooper on the ground that Cooper was entitled to sovereign immunity. In its judgment in favor of Cooper, the trial court wrote:

"Sovereign immunity also bars Sima's action for damages against Cooper in his official capacity. Section 14 of the Alabama Constitution prohibits a damages award against a State official in his official capacity because a result favorable to Sima would directly affect the State treasury."

         Under most circumstances, a state official sued in his or her official capacity is entitled to sovereign immunity under § 14 of the Alabama Constitution of 1901.

"This Court has long held that '"'the circuit court is without jurisdiction to entertain a suit against the State because of Sec. 14 of the Constitution.'"' Larkins v. Department of Mental Health & Mental Retardation, 806 So.2d 358, 364 (Ala. 2001) (quoting Alabama State Docks Terminal Ry. v. Lyles, 797 So.2d 432, 435 (Ala. 2001), quoting in turn Aland v. Graham, 287 Ala. 226, 229, 250 So.2d 677, 678 (1971)). '[A]n action contrary to the State's immunity is an action over which the courts of this State lack subject-matter jurisdiction.' Larkins, 806 So.2d at 363."

Ex parte Alabama Dep't of Transp., 978 So.2d 17, 21 (Ala. 2007). However, there are exceptions to the State's sovereign immunity under § 14, one of which is a valid inverse-condemnation action brought against a state official in his or her representative capacity. Id. If the exception did not exist, an action against a governmental authority to recover the value of property that has been taken by that authority could never occur, because, based on sovereign immunity, the trial court would never obtain jurisdiction over an inverse-condemnation action. See Jefferson Cty. v. Southern Natural Gas Co., 621 So.2d 1282, 1287 (Ala. 1993). Therefore, we hold that the trial court erred in determining that Sima's action against Cooper was due to be dismissed on the basis of sovereign immunity.

         Sima also asserts that the trial court erred in dismissing its inverse-condemnation action against both Cooper and the city on the ground that Sima did not have a property right ...


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