Florida Federal Court Rulings allow Florida Landowners to meet Condemning Authorities on Level Playing Field.

In Florida, payment of the property owners’ attorney’s fees are part of the full compensation mandated by the statutes, case law, and our state constitution. All condemnations and condemning authorities in Florida state courts know this and expect this.

Enter the Sabal Trail Pipeline Company,  formed in 2013 to build a 3′ diameter natural gas pipeline through Alabama, Georgia, and Florida. Sabal Trail elected to file their condemnation actions in Federal Court filing over 250 lawsuits in the Middle and Northern Districts of Florida.  It is no secret that this decision was, in large part, to preserve Sabal Trail’s ability to argue that they would not have to pay the property owners’ attorney’s fees or costs as would be required in all cases filed in Florida state courts.

Judge Corrigan of the Middle District asked that the various owners’ attorneys (roughly 10 different law firms representing hundreds of owners) work together to file one unified brief on the issue. Around the same time, Sabal Trail moved for summary judgment in the Northern District asking Judge Walker, the judge assigned all Sabal Trail cases there, to rule Federal law trumps this substantive requirement of Florida law.

Sabal Trail’s Motion for Partial Summary Judgment  is available here.

The unified owners’ response (researched and drafted by GrayRobinson attorneys Rachael Crews and Summer DeGel) is available here.

Sabal Trail’s reply to the Owner’s Response is available here.

Judge Walker, in the Northern District, ruled a week prior to a set hearing that Sabal Trail’s position was untenable and Federal case law made clear Florida substantive law applied to these cases, including the requirement that the condemning authority pay fees and costs. Judge Walker also made clear the cases in his jurisdiction would be decided before a jury, not, as Sabal requested, before a three member ‘commission.’

Judge Walker carefully examined the interplay between Federal law and its requirement that State substantive law govern in a condemnation proceeding absent an express congressional intent to the contrary. Looking to the case of Georgia Power v. Sanders, 617 F.2d 1112 (5th Cir 1980) as binding precedent in the 11th Circuit (the case was decided before the 11th Circuit was created from part of the old 5th Circuit), the Court found it unquestionable that state substantive law applied to the cases at issue, despite Sabal Trail “mak[ing] a boatload of arguments to the contrary, [ ] none of [which] hold water.” This necessarily makes attorney’s fees and costs part of the compensation owed in these cases.

Meanwhile, in the Middle District of Florida, Judge Corrigan held a hearing on Friday, June 9 regarding most of the remaining unresolved parcels in the Middle District.

Today, June 15, 2017, Judge Corrigan issued his ruling and held the same: that attorney’s fees and expert costs are owed by pipeline companies like Sabal Trail when condemning in the state of Florida.

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