Midship Pipeline Co. v. Tract No. BR-0860.000, 2.331 Acres of Land

Decision Date29 April 2021
Docket NumberCase Number: 6:18-cv-302-RAW
CourtU.S. District Court — Eastern District of Oklahoma

Judge: Ronald A. White


The Court orders as follows:

Introductory Instruction

This is an eminent domain action brought by Midship Pipeline Company, LLC ("Midship") to acquire a non-exclusive easement from Defendant Landowners for a 36" natural gas pipeline, as authorized by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission ("FERC"), in the interest of public convenience and necessity.

The term "eminent domain" describes a special legal proceeding in which Midship acquires private property for a public purpose. It is also called a condemnation proceeding.

The United States Constitution and Oklahoma Constitution allow private property to be taken for a public use if just compensation is paid to the owners of the property that is being condemned. Pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 71.1, the Court has appointed a Commission to assist the Court in determining the compensation owed.

In this case, the Natural Gas Act, 15 U.S.C. §§ 717a-z, gives Midship the right to acquire the non-exclusive easement subject to the requirement that compensation for such acquisition shall be assessed by the Commission. In your deliberations, you should not consider whether or not the taking was necessary, wise, or proper. That has already been decided, and it is not an issue in this case.

The Commission acts as an assessing body in determining just compensation. Williams Natural Gas Co. v. Okla. City, 890 F.2d 255 (10th Cir. 1989); Parkes v. Natural Gas Pipe Line Co. of Am., 249 P.2d 462 (OK 1952); Fed. R. Civ. P. 71.1 (h)(2)(C).

General Instructions on Commissioners' Duties, Powers, and Report.

Pursuant to Rule 71.1, "[a] Commission has the powers of a master under Rule 53(c). Its action and report are determined by a majority. Rule 53(d), (e), and (f) apply to its action and report." Fed. R. Civ. P. 71.1(h)(2)(D). Accordingly, the Court directs that the Commissioners shall: (1) regulate all Commission hearings and all proceedings related to these hearings, such as briefing at the discretion of the Commissioners; (2) take all appropriate measures to perform their assigned duties fairly and efficiently; and (3) exercise the same power as this Court to compel, take, and record evidence. Fed. R. Civ.P. 53(c). The Commission shall establish its own procedures for filing and responding to motions. The Commission shall produce written orders as necessary, which the Commission shall forward to chambers for filing and service on each party. Fed. R. Civ. P. 53(d). Similarly, the Commission shall produce a written report on just compensation ("report") to the Court, which shall be filed and served on each party involved in a hearing. Fed. R. Civ. P. 53(e). The Commission may, in its discretion, issue a single report at the conclusion of all hearings, or issue reports on different dates regarding different properties grouped as it deems appropriate.

All written orders and reports shall be signed by the participating Commission members, and, as with all orders and reports, an electronic signature is sufficient. Evidentiary or procedural orders as recognized below that fall within the province of the Chairperson need only be signed by the Chairperson. The written orders and reports shall include all relevant findings of fact and conclusions of law; procedural orders need not be as comprehensive but should be sufficiently detailed to enable this Court to conduct adequate review when necessary. The United States Supreme Court has stated that "[c]onclusory findings are alone not sufficient," because a district court would "have no way of knowing what path the Commissioners took through the maze of conflicting evidence." United States v. Merz, 376 U.S. 192, 198 (1964). Thus, although "[t]he Commissioners need not make detailed findings such as judges do who try a case without a jury[,]" the Commissioners must nonetheless "reveal the reasoning they use in deciding on a particular award, what standard they try to follow, which line of testimony they adopt, what measure of severance damages they use, and so on." Id.; see also 13 James W. Moore,Moore's Federal Practice § 71.1.12[4] ("A report containing only conclusory statements and a summary of the evidence is clearly insufficient."). Additionally, not "every contested issue raised on the record before the [C]ommission must be resolved by a separate finding of fact[]" and there does not have to be "an array of findings of subsidiary facts to demonstrate that the ultimate finding of value is soundly and legally based." Merz, 376 U.S. at 198-199. Rather, the path followed by the Commissioners in reaching their decisions should be "distinctly marked." Id. at 199. The Commission is therefore "required to state not only the end result of their inquiry, but the process by which they reached it." Id.

Upon the filing of a Commission order or report, a party involved in the hearing with which the order or report is concerned may file specific and detailed objections to the Commission order or report no later than fourteen (14) days after a copy of a report is served. Fed. R. Civ. P. 53(f)(2). This shall constitute the party's notice of and opportunity to be heard on the order or report. Fed. R. Civ. P. 53(f)(1). The Court may in its discretion elect to receive evidence related to the order or report, but no oral argument or hearing on any objection will be held unless ordered by the Court. The parties should note that in acting on a Commission order or report, the Court may adopt or affirm, modify, wholly or partly reject or reverse, or resubmit to the Commission with instructions the order or report. Fed. R. Civ. P. 53(f)(1).

A response to any objection to an order or report must be filed within seven (7) days of the objection. No reply briefs may be filed, unless specifically allowed by the Court. The Court will decide any objection to a conclusion of law or finding of fact made orrecommended by the Commission on a de novo basis. Fed. R. Civ. P. 53(f)(4). The Court will review the Commission's ruling on a procedural matter under an abuse of discretion standard. Fed. R. Civ. P. 53(f)(5). The Commission's report(s) on just compensation shall be submitted to the Court and filed of record. Fed. R. Civ. P. 71.1 and 53.

Duties of Chairperson.

The Court has designated Mr. Chris D. Jones as the Commission Chairperson. The Chairperson shall make all discovery and evidentiary rulings related to all hearings in which he takes part and will ensure that the Commission adheres to any rulings by this Court. See 13 James W. Moore, Moore's Federal Practice § 71.1.12[1] ("A lawyer is often appointed by the court to function as Chairperson and to make evidentiary rulings."). In any hearing in which the Chairperson does not participate, he shall designate another Commissioner to assume the role of chairperson for that hearing and that designated Chairperson shall make all evidentiary rulings. The Chairperson shall also be responsible for conducting the hearing - i.e., calling the hearing to order and supervising the proceedings. Finally, although all of the exhibits that have been admitted into evidence will go to the courtroom deputy following the filing of the report to which they pertain, the Chairperson is charged with maintaining control of the exhibits until delivery to the courtroom deputy.

Location of Hearing.

Unless otherwise ordered by the chairperson or this Court, or stipulated by the parties, all hearings shall be held at such location or locations as the Commission shalldecide. Hearings may, as necessary, be held at locations convenient to the parties, counsel, or Commission members.

Manner of Hearing.

Each property shall be the subject of a separate and distinct hearing before a panel of three Commissioners, unless the parties stipulate or the Commission decides that more than one property be combined into a single hearing (e.g., in the case of a Defendant property owner who owns more than one property upon which Plaintiff has obtained Easements). The manner of the hearings shall adhere to the conventions of a trial.

The parties through counsel shall give opening statements to the Commission, either at the commencement of the proceeding or immediately prior to the party presenting its evidence. Evidence shall then be presented to the Commission. The parties through counsel shall then present an oral closing argument, after which time the panel shall take the matter under advisement and conduct subsequent deliberations that should result in a written report. The decision of the Commission is determined by a majority. See 13 James W. Moore, Moore's Federal Practice § 71.1.04[2][h] (stating that a Commission's "action and report are determined by a majority").

All hearings must be on the record through a registered court reporter. Plaintiff shall compensate any court reporter used at a hearing at the regular hourly rate of that reporter, in addition to travel expenses. The parties are responsible for the costs of obtaining a transcript just as they would be in any case. The reporter shall bill Plaintiff directly, and any issue surrounding billing or payment should be brought to the attention of the Court promptly.

Duty in Deliberating.

The Court cannot embody all the law in any single part of these instructions. One portion of the instructions should be considered in light of and in harmony with all the instructions. Whether certain instructions are applicable may depend upon the conclusions the Commission reaches on the facts. If a Commissioner has an impression that the Court indicated how any disputed fact should be decided, the Commissioner must put aside such impression because...

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