142 F.3d 718 (4th Cir. 1998), 96-2136, United States v. Keller

Docket Nº:96-2136.
Citation:142 F.3d 718
Party Name:UNITED STATES of America, Plaintiff-Appellee, v. Gloria J. KELLER; Gladys I. Poffinberger; Edgar Poffinberger; Charlotte Keller, Defendants-Appellants, and 41.98 Acres of Land, More or less, Situated in Frederick County, Maryland; Unknown Owners, Defendants.
Case Date:April 27, 1998
Court:United States Courts of Appeals, Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit
 
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142 F.3d 718 (4th Cir. 1998)

UNITED STATES of America, Plaintiff-Appellee,

v.

Gloria J. KELLER; Gladys I. Poffinberger; Edgar

Poffinberger; Charlotte Keller, Defendants-Appellants,

and

41.98 Acres of Land, More or less, Situated in Frederick

County, Maryland; Unknown Owners, Defendants.

No. 96-2136.

United States Court of Appeals, Fourth Circuit

April 27, 1998

Argued Oct. 27, 1997.

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ARGUED: R. Edwin Brown, Brown & Sturm, Rockville, MD, for Appellants. M. Alice Thurston, Environment and Natural Resources Division, United States Department of Justice, Washington, DC, for Appellee. ON BRIEF: Laurie R. Hanig, Brown & Sturm, Rockville, MD, for Appellants. Lois J. Schiffer, Assistant Attorney General, Joy Ryan, Aimee Jiminez, John A. Bryson, Environment and Natural Resources Division, United States Department of Justice, Washington, DC, for Appellee.

Before LUTTIG, Circuit Judge, CAMPBELL, Senior Circuit Judge of the United States Court of Appeals for the First Circuit, sitting by designation, and TRAXLER, United States District Judge for the District of South Carolina, sitting by designation.

Affirmed by published opinion. Judge LUTTIG wrote the majority opinion, in which Senior Judge CAMPBELL joined. Judge TRAXLER wrote a dissenting opinion.

OPINION

LUTTIG, Circuit Judge:

This appeal arises from a condemnation proceeding initiated by the United States to obtain title to property owned by the defendants-appellants ("landowners"). Because the landowners believe the district court erred in denying their untimely demand for a jury trial on the issue of just compensation, they appeal that court's determination of the amount of compensation due them. For the reasons stated herein, we affirm.

I.

On December 21, 1994, the United States filed a complaint in condemnation to obtain, assertedly for the purposes of administering, preserving, and developing the Appalachian National Scenic Trail, approximately 42 acres of land owned by the landowners. See J.A. at 6. The government simultaneously served the landowners with notice, and included with the notice a demand for a jury trial on the issue of just compensation pursuant to FRCP 71A. Id. at 6, 8. The landowners did not file an answer to the complaint. 1

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Several months of negotiations ensued between government counsel and the landowners. Orally and in writing, the government repeatedly urged the landowners to retain counsel. See J.A. at 33. Throughout 1995, the landowners did not obtain counsel, but actively negotiated on their own behalf.

In January of 1996, the government requested that the condemnation dispute be scheduled for trial in May, J.A. at 30-31, and the court apparently complied. In early April, as the trial drew near, government counsel informed the landowners in writing:

[N]ow with the trial date approaching, I must change my role from being a negotiator to that of advocate....

As you know, I have suggested on several occasions that you get an attorney to represent you. I still believe that is good advice. However, I want you to understand that, if you wait until shortly before trial to bring in an attorney, your attorney will have to prepare quickly. I will not be able to agree to delay the trial. Therefore, I suggest that, if you are going to change your mind and retain an attorney, you should do so within a week.

J.A. at 33. Shortly thereafter, the landowners retained counsel. On April 18, 1996--nearly sixteen months after the initial complaint was filed--counsel for the landowners filed a demand for a jury trial on the issue of just compensation. J.A. at 16-17. Four days later, the government formally withdrew its demand for a jury trial, and concurrently filed a motion to "retain" the "non-jury trial setting." J.A. at 18-19. 2

The trial was ultimately continued until July 22-23, 1996, to allow the landowners' counsel time to prepare. On July 8, 1996, the district court denied the landowners' demand for a jury trial. This denial was explicitly based on that court's attempt to resolve certain discovery disputes that had arisen (the landowners had failed to disclose in a timely manner the nature of their expert appraisal reports or the identity of their trial witnesses, and the government had accordingly sought to exclude this evidence) in a manner it believed fair to both parties:

Frankly, in light of the other motions, I--there have been all kinds of motions filed regarding discovery matters because of late production of discovery. So ... I finally decided that the just way to resolve this was to deny the untimely request for a jury trial.

I am going to let things happen today and see where we stand in terms of the discovery issues. I want the landowners to be able to fully present their case as they see appropriate. If it ultimately turns out that I cannot finally decide the issues today because of unfair prejudice to the United States because of not having been told things in advance, then one of the virtues of a nonjury case is that we can postpone it.

Hopefully, after all is said and done today, the landowners ... will be able to express his and their views, and I will be able to come to a decision. If not, as I say, one of the benefits of a nonjury case is that we won't have to worry about bringing eight to twelve people back. I will just postpone it and see where it goes.

J.A. at 118. In accordance with its reasoning, the district court proceeded to conduct a bench trial on the issue of just compensation. The landowners appealed.

II.

The law governing access to jury trials in federal condemnation proceedings is relatively clear. First, it is settled law that there is no constitutional right to a jury trial in such a proceeding. See, e.g., United States v. Reynolds, 397 U.S. 14, 18, 90 S.Ct. 803, 806, 25 L.Ed.2d 12 (1970); Bauman v. Ross, 167 U.S. 548, 593, 17 S.Ct. 966, 983, 42 L.Ed. 270 (1897). Rather, the availability of a jury trial in a condemnation case brought by the United States is governed by FRCP 71A(h), which provides:

If the [condemnation] action involves the exercise of the power of eminent domain under the law of the United States, any

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tribunal specially constituted by an Act of Congress governing the case for the trial of the issue of just compensation shall be the tribunal for the determination of that issue; but if there is no such specially constituted tribunal any party may have a trial by jury of the issue of just compensation by filing a demand therefor within the time allowed for answer or within such further time as the court may fix, unless the court in its discretion orders that, because of the character, location, or quantity of the property to be condemned, or for other reasons in the interest of justice, the issue of compensation shall be determined by a commission of three persons appointed by it.

It is clear that this rule does not provide an "absolute right" to a jury trial. Atlantic Seaboard Corp. v. Van Sterkenburg, 318 F.2d 455, 459 (4th Cir.1963). Not only is a party's access to such a trial restricted to the issue of just compensation, see Reynolds, 397 U.S. at 19, 90 S.Ct. at 806-07 (so interpreting FRCP 71A), but a jury trial even on this issue cannot be obtained if Congress has by statute provided a special tribunal for trial of the issue, or if the court, in its discretion, orders that the issue be determined by commission. See United States v. 21.54 Acres of Land, 491 F.2d 301, 304 (4th Cir.1973); Atlantic Seaboard, 318 F.2d at 459; United States v. Cunningham, 246 F.2d 330, 332 (4th Cir.1957).

Furthermore, to obtain even the limited access to a jury provided by the rule, a party must make a timely demand for a jury trial. Unless otherwise provided by the court, a defendant must make such a demand within twenty days of service of notice of the government's complaint. Compare FRCP 71A(h) (Jury demand must be filed "within the time allowed for answer or within such further time as the court may fix."), with FRCP 71A(e) (Defendant's answer is due "within 20 days after the service of notice."). Fourth Circuit precedent makes clear that where a party makes an untimely demand for a jury trial, a district court may, in its discretion, deny that demand and instead conduct a bench trial. Compare Atlantic Seaboard, 318 F.2d at 457-58 (District court conducted bench trial of all issues, including that of just compensation, after denying jury demand "on the ground that it was untimely and the Court was not disposed to exercise its discretion to waive the procedural default."), with id. at 459 ("We find no basis for the contention that the Court's denial of the tardy demand for a jury was an abuse of its discretion.").

III.

The landowners do not challenge the validity of these general principles. Nor do they dispute either the fact that they did not demand a jury trial until almost sixteen months after receiving notice of the condemnation...

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