$36,795,000 Verdict in a Case of Aggravated Municipal Chutzpa

You mustn’t miss the 167-page opinion of the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California, awarding $36.795 million against the City of Half Moon Bay for its taking of the plaintiffs’ land. Yamagiwa v. City of Half Moon Bay, 2007 WL 4276385 (N.D. Cal.), Nov. 28, 2007. The city first flooded the subject 24.7-acre parcel, and then pointed to its “wetland” condition as the basis for denying permission to develop it.

The court was not amused by the city’s conduct in court either. The owners originally filed their case in state court as required by the Williamson County case, but the city removed it to federal court which, it said, had jurisdiction. Then, after two years of litigation that included 47 depositions and about a two-week trial, and cost millions to prosecute, the city submitted a post-trial brief saying “never mind” and asking the court to remand the case back to the state court, on the grounds that the federal court, according to the city’s born-again vision, lacked jurisdiction. Nothing doing, said the court, quoting from another opinion: “We decline to let [defendant] take its chips off the table because it didn’t like the dealer’s hand.” We highly recommend that in spite of its length you read this opinion in its entirety, particularly the part that starts at p. 155 and deals with the Williamson County ripeness problem — a first rate job of judicial analysis.

This caper is reminiscent of the incredible behavior of the City of Monterey in the Del Monte Dunes case, where after the city requested five successive development proposals that involved 19 plot plans,  it refused to allow any development on Del Monte’s land supposedly because it was suitable as a habitat of the Blue Butterfly. Of course, no such butterflies were sighted on the subject property, but hey man, the city thought that if a Blue Butterfly were to wander onto that land, it might like it there. This one is worse because of the city’s evident attempt to misuse the federal court as an instrument of oppression of the plaintiff-owners.

 We will keep an eye on this one, if nothing else because the City of Half Moon Bay has an annual budget of only $10 million, so the verdict comes to $5000 per city inhabitant. Still, it’s a case of poetic justice, if ever there was one.

In the interest of full disclosure we note that the plaintiffs were represented by Ed Burg of Manatt, Phelps & Phillips, a law firm to which your editor is of counsel.