Southern Natural Gas v. 2.0 Acres Cullman Cty., 99-6008

Decision Date16 December 1999
Docket NumberNo. 99-6008,99-6008
Citation197 F.3d 1368
Parties(11th Cir. 1999) SOUTHERN NATURAL GAS COMPANY, Plaintiff-Appellee, v. LAND, CULLMAN COUNTY, 2.0 acres of land located in Cullman County, Alabama; Mack Rice, et al., Defendants-Appellants.
CourtU.S. Court of Appeals — Eleventh Circuit

[Copyrighted Material Omitted] Appeal from the United States District Court for the Northern District of Alabama. (No. 97-01728-CV-L-S), Seybourn H. Lynne, Judge.

Before DUBINA, Circuit Judge, KRAVITCH, Senior Circuit Judge, and NESBITT*, Senior District Judge.

DUBINA, Circuit Judge:

This case involves an appeal from a judgment entered in favor of the appellee in a pipeline condemnation action filed pursuant to the Natural Gas Act, 15 U.S.C. 717, et seq.1 The landowners, among other things, challenge the use of a federal land commission, pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 71A, to determine the appropriate compensation for a federally authorized taking of private land. We affirm in part, and vacate in part.

I. BACKGROUND

Appellee, Southern Natural Gas Company ("Southern"), is an interstate natural gas pipeline company serving the southeastern United States. Southern entered into long term service contracts with the cities of Huntsville and Decatur, Alabama, to provide natural gas transportation services to those north Alabama cities. In order to provide such services, Southern must construct a 122-mile extension of its pipeline, extending it from Tuscaloosa to Huntsville. Southern obtained a Certificate of Public Convenience and Necessity from the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission ("FERC") for the purpose of constructing the pipeline. Extension of the pipeline requires the use of a series of 50-foot-wide permanent easements that will cross some 500 tracts of land in seven Alabama counties. Although a majority of the landowners signed right-of-way agreements with Southern, it became necessary to condemn nearly 200 tracts of land. This appeal involves the process by which "just compensation" for the taking of these 50-foot easements will be determined.

Pursuant to the Natural Gas Act, 15 U.S.C. 717, et seq., which governs the activities of interstate pipelines like Southern's, Southern filed condemnation actions in the United States District Court for the Northern District of Alabama. For judicial efficiency, all of these cases were assigned to Judge Seybourn H. Lynne, who, exercising the discretion granted him under Rule 71A of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure ("Rule 71A"), appointed a federal land commission ("the commission") to hear the just compensation cases. In deciding to use a commission rather than conduct individual jury trials, Judge Lynne stated his concern that "[i]t would take years and years in jury trials" to determine the amount of just compensation due to the landowners in these cases.

Throughout the condemnation process, the district court provided guidance to the commission in terms of procedure, just compensation principles, and applicable standards. In accordance with the district court's instructions, the commissioners viewed the properties and conducted evidentiary hearings. After each evidentiary hearing, the commission reported its determination of the amount of just compensation due to the owner of each tract. If either party objected to the commission's report, Judge Lynne heard those objections and permitted testimony, as well as the presentation of other evidence, before adopting, modifying, or rejecting the report as provided in Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 53(e)(2).

The route of Southern's natural gas pipeline crosses a 100 acre cattle pasture owned by Mack and Callie Mae Rice ("the Rices") in Cullman County, Alabama. Southern filed a condemnation complaint in the Northern District of Alabama against this property. The complaint included a legal description and a plat map depicting the easements needed across the Rices' land.

Subsequently, the commissioners, parties, and lawyers viewed this tract, and the commissioners conducted an evidentiary hearing to determine the appropriate award of just compensation for the taking of the pipeline easement. The commissioners had no problem identifying and walking the easement. Witnesses for both sides testified before the commission, offering opinions as to the value of the permanent and temporary takings.

After the commission issued its report to the district court regarding the Rices' land, the district court conducted a hearing on the parties' specific objections to the report. The court then entered a judgment and memorandum opinion modifying the commission's findings with respect to amounts awarded for (1) a "limiting effect" on "future improvements," and (2) dislocation to the Rices' cattle operation. The Rices appeal the district court's modification of the commission's determination on these two issues and challenge the court's discretion to appoint a commission, as well as the court's finding that the complaint for condemnation contained an adequate land description.

II. STANDARDS OF REVIEW

We review the district court's decision to deny a jury demand and appoint a Rule 71A commission to determine just compensation in eminent domain cases for abuse of discretion. See United States v. 2,477.79 Acres, 259 F.2d 23, 27 (5th Cir.1958).2 The extent to which Rule 71A supersedes the practice and procedure language of 15 U.S.C. 717f(h) is a question of law. This court subjects questions of law to de novo review. See Blackfeet Nat'l Bank v. Nelson, 171 F.3d 1237, 1240 (11th Cir.), cert. denied, --- U.S. ----, 120 S.Ct. 497, --- L.Ed.2d ---- (1999).

The district court's decision that Southern's legal description was adequate is a finding of fact that must stand unless clearly erroneous. See Onishea v. Hopper, 171 F.3d 1289, 1296 (11th Cir.1999)(en banc )(petition for certiorari filed May 20, 1999). Whether the legal description must conform to the standards of Rule 71A or to the standards of state law is a question of law to be reviewed de novo. See Blackfeet Nat'l Bank, 171 F.3d at 1240.

This court reviews the district court's determination of just compensation for clear error. See O'Brien v. United States, 392 F.2d 949, 952 (5th Cir.1968).

III. ANALYSIS

The Takings Clause in the Fifth Amendment to the United States Constitution prohibits the government, or its agents, from taking private property for "public use" without "just compensation." U.S. Const. Amend. V. Passed in 1938, the Natural Gas Act, 15 U.S.C. 717f(h), gives private gas companies the federal power of eminent domain to acquire the necessary right of way to construct, operate, and maintain a pipe line for the transportation of natural gas. The statute grants jurisdiction to the U.S. district courts when the amount claimed by the owner of the property to be condemned exceeds $3,000. 15 U.S.C. 717f(h).

A. Jury Trial or Commission

This appeal raises the issue of whether Rule 71A of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure supersedes the Natural Gas Act's practice and procedure clause for the condemnation of property.3 The Rices argue that they are entitled to a jury trial under the Natural Gas Act, 15 U.S.C. 717, et seq. The Natural Gas Act provides that the practice and procedure in a condemnation action "shall conform as nearly as may be with the practice and procedure in similar action or proceeding in the courts of the State where the property is situated." 15 U.S.C. 717f(h). Southern, however, contends that the Rices are not entitled to a jury trial because Rule 71A grants the district court, in any action which "involves the exercise of the power of eminent domain under the law of the United States," the discretion to determine whether the issue of just compensation will be heard by a jury or a court-appointed commission.4 Fed.R.Civ.P. 71A(h). In our view, Southern is correct because Rule 71A authorizes the district court judge to use a commission in this case and the Rule supersedes the Natural Gas Act's practice and procedure clause.

Rule 71A(h) expressly provides, in pertinent part, that:

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.

Fed.R.Civ.P. 71A(h) (emphasis added). The plain language of Rule 71A grants the district court broad discretion. The district court may, in its discretion, order a hearing by a commission for any number of reasons: the character of the property, or the location of the property, or the quantity of the property, or "other reasons in the interest of justice." We believe that Southern's pipeline project, with over 500 tracts of property spread over seven counties and 122 miles, is precisely what the drafters of Rule 71A had in mind in listing exemplary reasons for denying jury trials (character, location, and quantity). Thus, the district court correctly exercised its discretion in appointing a commission to determine the issue of just compensation.

To apply Rule 71A in the case before us, the court must determine that Rule 71A supersedes the Natural Gas Act's practice and procedure clause. "Courts generally adhere to the principle that statutes relating to the same subject matter should be construed harmoniously if possible, and if not, that more recent or specific statutes should prevail over older or more general ones." United States v. Lara, 181 F.3d 183, 198 (1st Cir.1999) (citing HCSC-Laundry v. United States, 450 U.S. 1, 6, 101 S.Ct. 836, 67 L.Ed.2d 1 (1981) and Morton v. Mancari, 417 U.S. 535, 550- 51, 94 S.Ct. 2474, 41 L.Ed.2d 290 (1974)), cert. denied, --- U.S. ----, 120 S.Ct. 432, --- L.Ed.2d ---- (1999)...

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