E-Alert Case Updates
Summary Judgment Available in Condemnation Cases on Issue of Just Compensation
Montgomery County, Maryland v. Soleimanzadeh
In these two (2) eminent domain cases, the Court of Appeals held that summary judgment was available in condemnation proceedings as to the amount of just compensation to the landowner. Further, where the trial court granted summary judgment on the issue of just compensation, there was no violation of the condemnee’s constitutional rights.
In these cases, the Circuit Court for Montgomery County entered summary judgment pursuant to MD. RULE 2-501 in favor of the condemnor, Montgomery County, Maryland (the “County”). In earlier proceedings in both cases, the circuit court imposed discovery violation sanctions precluding the landowners from introducing any evidence as to the fair market value of the taken properties. Because of the sanctions, the landowners were unable to generate, through affirmative evidence, a genuine dispute of material fact concerning the County’s appraisal valuations of the taken properties. Thus, the circuit court granted summary judgment on the issue of just compensation in both cases. On appeal, the Court of Special Appeals disagreed, and held that the trial court erred in granting summary judgment. The intermediate appellate court reasoned that summary judgment is not available in condemnation proceedings on the question of just compensation because a landowner cannot be deprived of the constitutional right to have a jury determine just compensation. The Court of Appeals reversed and held that summary judgment was available in both cases and was properly granted.
The discovery sanctions arose at the trial court level when the landowners refused to respond to the County’s written discovery requests. The County filed a Motion to Compel and/or Sanctions. The trial court granted the County’s unopposed motion, and ordered the landowners to file complete discovery responses by a date certain, and further directed that, if the landowners did not file discovery responses, they were not permitted to introduce any evidence in support of their claims for just compensation and damages. The landowners never filed any responses to the written discovery and the sanctions would become self-executing had the matter come to trial. On the scheduled trial date, the County filed a Motion for Summary Judgment or, in the Alternative, for Judgment by Default, on the issue of just compensation and damages on the grounds that the landowners were unable to present evidence of value of the taken property greater than the appraisal value proposed by the County due to the discovery sanctions. The circuit court condemned the property and awarded the landowners the amounts proffered by the County’s experts as just compensation for the taken properties. The landowners appealed the grant of summary judgment, but did not appeal the imposition of discovery sanctions. Overall, the Court of Appeals held that summary judgment may apply in condemnation proceedings on the issue of just compensation because Article III, § 40 of the Maryland Constitution provides the landowner with the opportunity to have a jury award just compensation in such cases, provided that the landowner litigates the case properly according to the Maryland Rules. Specifically, in these cases, where the landowners were precluded from introducing any evidence as to the value of the taken property (an essential element of their claim in the condemnation action), the grant of summary judgment was indeed proper.
The Court of Appeals expressly stated that the landowners did not challenge on appeal the discovery sanctions, and that, had the landowners raised this issue on appeal, it would be “faced with the more difficult question of whether the Circuit Court abused its discretion in imposing the discovery sanctions for delayed discovery responses that resulted in precluding the [landowners] from introducing evidence necessary to establish their theory of damages.”
Judge McDonald dissented, and Judge Adkins joined. The dissenters noted that the majority opinion represented a “sea change” in the landscape of eminent domain cases and that this was particularly troubling where the landowners had forfeited their right to brief and argue the issue at the Court of Appeals and thus, there was a lack of “adversarial presentation” on this topic. The majority’s opinion also failed to account for cross-examination, and the ability of the landowner’s counsel to elicit favorable evidence from the County’s experts on cross-examination at trial, which they were not precluded from doing based on the trial court sanctions.
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