Trust Lexis, But Verify the Information

 

         To someone like your faithful servant, who received an engineering education in the 1950s, modern technology is an unending intellectual feast. The idea of getting whatever information one needs instantly, just by clicking a mouse or pressing a key never ceases to amaze us. It’s science fiction come true. And few things in that regard are as high on our hit parade than Lexis. No, we have nothing against Westlaw; it’s just that we got started on Lexis and have grown accustomed to it.

          Back in the old days, doing legal research meant burying oneself in a law library for hours on end in the hope of finding that right authority or quote. Now, it happens in minutes, if not seconds. Wow! And one of the things that we have come to love is Lexis’ practice of providing a concise case summary at the beginning of each case, so we can tell at a glance what the putatively relevant research result is about, and how likely it is to serve its function of providing information the researcher seeks.

          But alas, as Zsa Zsa Gabor put it, “nobody’s purrfect, dollink,” and we have just discovered that those case summaries can be something less than accurate. Case in point, the landmark California case of Klopping v. City of Whittier, 8 Cal.3d 39, 500 P.2d 1345 (1972). The Klopping case was a precedent-setting legal blockbuster. It established two new substantive rules: first, that when a government entity announces its intention to condemn particular properties or areas, and as a result, tenants occupying those properties leave, maintenance of the targeted areas declines, and the value of the targeted properties plummets (a.k.a. precondemnation blight), the condemnor cannot just use the depressed “fair market value” as the measure of compensation, when it eventually gets around to the taking. Instead, the owners are entitled to the fair market value as it would have been without the condemnor’s value-depressing activities. Second, Klopping also held that when the would-be condemnor delays acquisition of the targeted property for an unreasonably long time, or otherwise acts unreasonably, and this causes a serious economic harm to the owners, they need not await the eventual filing of the condemnation action, but may instead file an inverse condemnation action of their own in which they can recover just compensation for their property when the condemnor’s activities amount to a de facto taking, and damages for rents lost during the delay. On a procedural point, Klopping also held that when the subject property has been thus subjected to government-caused precondemnation blight, the owner may assert his right to be paid for the blight-induced losses by way of his answer in the condemnation case when it is finally filed. Actually, the owner must thus claim those damages this way, or lose the right to recover them in a separate action. If you are interested in the topic of precondemnation blight, we recommend that you check out our oldie but goodie, entitled Condemnation Blight: Just How Just Is Just Compensation? 48 Notre Dame Lawyer 765 (1973) (the Notre Dame Lawyer is now called the Notre Dame Law Review)

         In Klopping, the City of Whittier commenced condemnation proceedings to take the subject properties for a parking lot. But it ran into problems selling its bonds, so it dismissed the condemnation action but in doing so it formally resolved that it would revive the condemnation when it got its financial house in order. In the meantime, as all that went on, the affected owners’ properties became pariahs in the local market. One owner actually lost his commercial building by foreclosure when its tenants left and the rent stream dried up. The court held that these losses were recoverable, which was a major development in eminent domain law.

But guess how Lexis describes that case? Ready? Here goes:

 “OVERVIEW: Lost rent claim was barred by res judicata because it was not brought in prior eminent domain action, but other rent claims were allowed to proceed against city in inverse condemnation where property was lost by private action and not eminent domain.” 

         That statement is not untrue, but it misses the major substantive thrust of the Klopping holding. By placing emphasis on the court’s procedural afterthought as if it were the core holding, it completely misses the major, first-impression doctrinal point made by the Klopping case. We know all that well, because your faithful servant was counsel for the Klopping condemnees in the California Supreme Court.

          So the moral of this story is that modern technology may be great, but old-fashioned verification of the accuracy of the information provided by it remains the sine qua non of effective research.

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