Lowball Watch – California, With a Lesson on How California Courts Can Treat Condemnees

An interesting, if sketchy news item comes to us from Willits, California via a story in The Willits News — Linda Williams, Good and Bad News for Brooktrails Water Users, The Willits News, July 15, 2011. For the whole story, click here

It appears that Brooktrails Township decided to acquire land for expansion of its water works, and in 2008 it “paid” the owners $27,700. The news story uses the word “paid,” but we surmise that what actually happened was that the township deposited that amount into court for the owners. Long story  short, the case went to trial and the jury  returned a verdict of $265,000, which the trial judge reduced to $236,000. For the benefit of lay readers, this sounds like an order of remittitur whereby the judge says to the winning party, “You either accept the remitted [lower] amount, or I will order a new trial.” This is what must have happened here because under the California Constitution just compensation is determined by the jury, so judges lack the power to just change a jury award.

Now comes the fun part.

Under California law, when a property owner wins a verdict that is larger than the condemnor’s pre-trial offer, the trial judge has the discretion to order the condemnor to pay for the owner’s attorneys fees and other litigation expenses, if the judge finds that the condemnor’s pre-trial offer was not reasonable but the owner’s demand was reasonable. So given the disparity in this case — a $27,770 deposit versus a $265,000 verdict — you’d think the condemnor’s offer was unreasonable on its face because the verdict came to almost ten times the condemnor’s deposit. Right? Wrong. This is California, man. The judge thought that the $27,770 deposit (which presumably was based on the condemnor’s appraisal) was “reasonable and fair.” No comment appears necessary.

We are unable to tell from the Willits News story whether the owners intend to appeal. We hope they do. See Tracy Joint Unified School Dist. v. Pombo, 117 Cal.Rptr.3d 470 (Cal.App. 2010)