Indep. Sch. Dist. No. 5 of Tulsa Cnty. v. Taylor

Decision Date31 March 2014
Docket NumberNo. 110709.,Released for Publication by Order of the Court of Civil Appeals of Oklahoma, Division No. 1.,110709.
Citation324 P.3d 415
PartiesINDEPENDENT SCHOOL DISTRICT NO. 5 OF TULSA COUNTY, OKLAHOMA, Plaintiff/Appellee, v. Patrick L. TAYLOR and Marshaleta Taylor, husband and wife, Defendants/Appellants, and Communication Federal Credit Union, Board of County Commissioners of Tulsa County, and Dennis J. Semler, as Treasurer of Tulsa County, State of Oklahoma, Defendants.
CourtUnited States State Court of Criminal Appeals of Oklahoma. Court of Civil Appeals of Oklahoma

OPINION TEXT STARTS HERE

Appeal from the District Court of Tulsa County, Oklahoma; Mary F. Fitzgerald, Trial Judge.

REVERSED WITH DIRECTIONS

Roger K. Eldredge, Ladner Little & Eldredge, Tulsa, Oklahoma, for Plaintiff/Appellee.

Robert J. Nichols, Brian A. Curthoys, Nichols & Curthoys, Tulsa, Oklahoma, for Defendants/Appellants.

DEBORAH B. BARNES, Vice–Chief Judge.

¶ 1 This appeal arises from a condemnation case that proceeded to a jury trial. Defendants/Appellants Patrick L. and Marshaleta Taylor, husband and wife (Landowners), appeal the trial court's Order granting the motion for new trial of Plaintiff/Appellee Independent School District No. 5 of Tulsa County, Oklahoma (Condemnor). The primary question presented on appeal is whether the trial court erred in granting Condemnor's motion for new trial because of an alleged error in admitting certain evidence at trial that was neither presented to nor considered by the commissioners. For the reasons set forth below, we answer this question in the affirmative, and reverse the Order with directions to the trial court to reinstate the judgment memorializing the jury's verdict.

BACKGROUND

¶ 2 In September 2007, Condemnor filed a petition to condemn an approximately 12–acre tract of property owned by Landowners (the Property) for public school purposes.1 The trial court appointed commissioners and instructed them to inspect the Property to determine the just compensation for the taking. 2 The commissioners were also instructed as follows;

When examining [the Property], it is proper for you to have with you [Condemnor], [Landowners], the parties' counsel and/or any of the parties' agents and/or employees in order to give them an opportunity to explain the boundaries and other features of the [P]roperty that they desire to tell you about. The parties may also provide you with written materials regarding the [P]roperty and their views as to its value.3

Nevertheless, the parties agree that neither Landowners nor Condemnor submitted any specific information to the commissioners regarding potential billboard lease income that might increase the value of the Property.

¶ 3 In their report filed on May 28, 2008, the commissioners determined the amount of just compensation to be $1,402,850. Within sixty days, Landowners filed a demand for a jury trial.

¶ 4 Prior to trial, in September 2008, Landowners filed a motion requesting the trial court to direct the commissioners to file a supplemental report to allow Landowners to present their billboard lease damage claim to the commissioners.4 Condemnor objected to this motion arguing, among other things, that it was not timely filed within thirty days of the May 2008 commissioners' report, and the trial court denied Landowners' motion. Condemnor then filed a motion in limine to prohibit Landowners from offering any evidence or argument at trial related to billboard lease damages. Condemnor's motion in limine was denied by the trial court.

¶ 5 Among other evidence presented at trial regarding the just compensation for the taking of the Property, Don Wilson, a real estate appraiser, testified on behalf of Landowners that the value of the Property is $2,645,000, plus an additional billboard lease value of $1,000,000, for a total value of $3,645,000.5 The jury returned a verdict of $3,100,000, and the judgment memorializing the jury's verdict was filed in July 2011.6

¶ 6 Condemnor filed a motion for new trial, and a hearing was held in March 2012. At the hearing, counsel for Condemnor argued “the billboard-related damages should have never been presented to the jury because those damages were not presented to the [c]ommissioners.” 7 He asserted not only that the billboard-related damages were never presented to the commissioners by the parties, but “that the [c]ommissioners never considered ... billboard-related damages when valuing the [P]roperty.” 8 In support, he cited to the affidavit of Larry Kelley, one of the three commissioners appointed by the court, wherein Kelley states, among other things, that the commissioners “did not consider to the best of my recollection the value of any potential billboard lease rights when determining the fair market value of the [P]roperty....” 9

¶ 7 The trial court granted the Condemnor's motion for new trial in the Order filed on April 20, 2012. The Order states as follows:

1. [Landowners] never presented anything to the [c]ommissioners related to their damage claim for the loss of billboard lease rentals.

2. The [c]ommissioners did not consider the value of any potential billboard lease rights when determining the fair market value of the [P]roperty at issue in this case.

3. After the Commissioners' Report was filed, the Court denied ... Landowners' motion asking the Court to direct the [c]ommissioners to file a Supplemental Commissioners' Report in order to allow ... Landowners to present their billboard damage claim to the [c]ommissioners and have the [c]ommissioners consider that claim when valuing the [P]roperty that is the subject of this condemnation action.

4. The Commissioners' Report as originally filed was confirmed by the Court.

5. However, ... Landowners were later permitted to present evidence and arguments to the jury in the trial of this matter related to their damage claim for the loss of billboard lease rentals. Such evidence and arguments were submitted to the jury after the Court denied [Condemnor's] motion in limine to exclude such evidence and arguments, and after the Court denied [Condemnor's] continuous objections to such evidence and arguments.

6. The Court erred in permitting the jury to consider evidence and arguments related to ... Landowners' claimed billboard damages because that element of damages was never presented to or considered by the [c]ommissioners.

7. The Court's error was not harmless given that ... Landowners sought to be awarded $1,000,000 in connection with their billboard rental damage claim, and the jury's $3,100,000 verdict was clearly influenced by ... Landowners' evidence and arguments related to their billboard damage claim.

8. [Condemnor] is entitled to a new trial because of this error.

9. The Court does not have jurisdiction to direct the [c]ommissioners to file a Supplemental Commissioners' Report to now consider ... Landowners' billboard damage claim.

10. Upon re-trial, ... Landowners shall be barred from presenting any evidence, argument and/or other matter related to their claimed billboard damages.

¶ 8 From the Order granting Condemnor's motion for new trial, Landowners appeal.

standard of review

¶ 9 A trial court is vested with wide discretion on whether to grant a new trial. Propst v. Alexander, 1995 OK 57, ¶ 8, 898 P.2d 141, 144. The district court's decision on a motion for new trial is reviewed for an abuse of discretion. Capshaw v. Gulf Ins. Co., 2005 OK 5, ¶ 7, 107 P.3d 595, 600. “An abuse of discretion occurs when a decision is based on an erroneous conclusion of law or where there is no rational basis in evidence for the ruling.” Spencer v. Okla. Gas & Elec. Co., 2007 OK 76, ¶ 13, 171 P.3d 890, 895 (footnote and emphasis omitted). “Because a trial court's discretion is broad [in ruling on a motion for new trial,] its ruling will not be disturbed by the reviewing tribunal in the absence of a clear showing of a manifest error or abuse of discretion with respect to a pure, simple and unmixed material question of law.” Capshaw, ¶ 7, 107 P.3d at 600 (footnote omitted). If a “new trial is granted by the same judge who tried the case, a much stronger showing of error or abuse of discretion is required in order for this Court to reverse than if a party was appealing a refusal to grant a new trial.” Austin v. Cockings, 1994 OK 29, ¶ 10, 871 P.2d 33, 34 (citations omitted).

¶ 10 An issue of statutory construction is a question of law, subject to de novo review and over which appellate courts exercise plenary, independent and non-deferential authority. State ex rel. Dep't of Transp. v. Minor, 2009 OK CIV APP 83, ¶ 7, 221 P.3d 141, 144.See also Stump v. Cheek, 2007 OK 97, ¶ 9, 179 P.3d 606, 609. The goal of statutory construction is to follow the intent of the legislature. Hess v. Excise Bd. of McCurtain Cnty., 1985 OK 28, ¶ 6, 698 P.2d 930, 932.

¶ 11 Regarding a trial court's determination to admit and exclude evidence, the Oklahoma Supreme Court has stated:

Under the Oklahoma Evidence Code, the trial court stands as a gatekeeper, admitting or excluding evidence based on the judge's assessment of its relevance and reliability. All relevant evidence is admissible, unless the trial court determines that its probative value is substantially outweighed by the danger of unfair prejudice, confusion of issues, misleading the jury, undue delay, needless presentation of cumulative evidence, or unfair and harmful surprise. A trial court has discretion in deciding whether proffered evidence is relevant and, if so, whether it should be admitted, and a judgment will not be reversedbased on a trial judge's ruling to admit or exclude evidence absent a clear abuse of discretion.

Myers v. Mo. Pac. R.R. Co., 2002 OK 60, ¶ 36, 52 P.3d 1014, 1033 (footnotes and internal quotation marks omitted). An abuse of discretion occurs when a trial court bases its decision on an erroneous conclusion of law, or where there is no rational basis in the evidence for the ruling. Christian v. Gray, 2003 OK 10, ¶ 43, 65 P.3d 591, 608.10

ANALYSIS

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