Lawsuit doesn't derail eminent domain

Law of the Land

By Inman News Feed
Add Comment Add Comment | Comments: 0 | Posted Mar. 31, 2010

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Law of the Land

Tara-Nicholle Nelson
Inman News

After the District of Columbia Council found that the Skyland Shopping Center was an eyesore in disrepair that contributed to crime and traffic blight in the surrounding neighborhood, it authorized the National Capital Revitalization Corp., a Washington, D.C., agency, to buy or obtain the properties comprising the center through eminent domain so that it could be redeveloped.

Seventeen owners, tenants and employees of businesses located in the center filed suit to stop the eminent domain process (Rumber, et al. v. District of Columbia, et al.), arguing that the district's proposal was designed to benefit the intended developer of the center rather than the public -- which, they argued, rendered the taking a violation of the Fifth Amendment.

The group that brought the lawsuit asked the district court to enjoin the district from proceeding with the condemnation.

After the district court denied their request for an injunction, the district began eminent domain proceedings -- against three members of the group that had filed the lawsuit -- in the District of Columbia Superior Court, after which the federal district court would no longer hear their claims since they were being handled in state court.

As to all the other parties to the lawsuit against the district, the district court found that the district authorized the condemnation to further a public purpose and, thus, did not violate the Fifth Amendment's takings clause.

All 17 plaintiffs appealed, but 14 of them were weeded out by the Court of Appeals for various reasons. Four of them sold their properties to the district. Six others were tenants whose leases expired or terminated under their own terms, some converting to month-to-month rental agreements.

The appellate court found all of these plaintiffs' cases to be moot, as the district could evict them from the center without exercising the power of eminent domain. Three others held no property interests in the center but were simply employees or owners of businesses located therein.

These parties to the lawsuit, the Court of Appeals explained, lacked standing to complain about the condemnation.

The remaining three parties who had brought the lawsuit were those who were involved in the state court eminent domain proceedings brought by the district.

It was undisputed that the Supreme Court ruling in Younger v. Harris, 401 U.S. 37 (1971), under which the district court abstained from intervening in the matters under consideration by the state court because an important state interest was at issue, was applicable to the claims that they brought.

However, the three remaining parties who filed the lawsuit argued that they fell within either of the two exceptions to Younger.

The Court of Appeals rejected this argument. The first Younger exception provides that "a federal court should not abstain if the federal plaintiff does not have a 'full and fair opportunity to litigate' his constitutional claims in the state proceedings."

Although the Superior Court originally ruled that plaintiffs had forfeited their constitutional claims by not raising them in time, the state court later reversed this forfeiture ruling, took note of a District of Columbia Appeals Court opinion in another Skyland Shopping Center eminent domain case, and ruled against plaintiffs on their constitutional claims on their merits.

The federal Court of Appeals had no reason to believe that the group of three were deprived of a fair opportunity to argue their constitutional defenses to the eminent domain proceedings.

Under the second exception to Younger, a federal court should not abstain from deciding a matter at issue in a state court where there is "a showing of bad faith by the officials bringing the state proceeding." One of the remaining parties argued that the district waited for years to include them in the state proceeding, despite the district having been aware of plaintiff's leasehold interest in the property from the beginning of the matter.

The Court of Appeals rejected this argument, explaining that the district stood to gain nothing from this delay, nor did the delay impair the interests of those who brought the lawsuit, given that plaintiffs sued to enjoin the eminent domain even before the state proceedings were initiated and were aware of the state proceedings from their start.

Accordingly, the district court's ruling dismissing the request to enjoin the eminent domain proceedings was upheld.

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