United States District Court, E.D. Louisiana
ORDER AND REASONS
MARTIN L. C. FELDMAN, District Judge.
Before the Court is the United States' motion for determination of title and request for hearing to determine just compensation. On April 20, 2015, the Court granted the motion insofar as the Court ordered that the issues of ownership and just compensation for the taking of Tract 345E will be resolved by May 13, 2015, on the papers, because no defendant had appeared or answered. On April 21, 2015, the United States filed a certificate of service into the record of this case, certifying that it had served a copy by regular and certified mail of this Court's April 20, 2015 order on those parties listed below. For the reasons that follow, the United States' motion is GRANTED, and the Court hereby resolves the ownership and just compensation issues - the only issues in this case - as follows.
This is a land condemnation case in which the United States has condemned, for the public use of flood protection, a small levee easement consisting of.021 acres of land situated in Plaquemines Parish, Louisiana.
In January 2014 the United States filed this land condemnation action, condemning a perpetual flood protection levee easement over real property, consisting of a total of.021 acres of land, situated in Plaquemines Parish, Louisiana, and designated as Tract No. 345E. Title vested in the United States upon its deposit of $700.00 into the Court's registry on January 8, 2014.
The United States has identified the persons who may have ownership interest in Tract 345E. The title company determined that the land had been acquired in 1947 by Victor Jones and Ethel Coleman Jones, who are now both deceased. A succession for Victor Jones has not been opened; accordingly, the United States has included in the record Schedule E, an entry for "Unknown Heirs, Legatees, Successors and Assigns Having or Claiming an Interest in the Estate of Victor Jones, aka Victor Jones, Sr." The title company has determined that 14 individuals have ownership interest in the land, due to an Amended Judgment of Possession in the Succession of Ethel Coleman Jones that was recorded in Plaquemines Parish in June 2008: Mark Jones, Angelina Jones, Jesse Jones, Kendrell Jones, Clifton Raye, Cal LaFrance, Joshua LaFrance, Yasheka LaFrance, Eric K. Jones, Victor Jones, Jr., Claudette Jones Riddick, Leatrice Jones LaFrance, Loretta Jones Henry, and Claude Jones. One of the heirs, Victor Jones, Jr., died in 2011; because a succession has not been opened for Victor Jones, Jr., Schedule E includes an entry for "Unknown Heirs, Legatees, Successors and Assigns Having or Claiming an Interest in the Estate of Victor Jones, aka Victor Jones, Jr." All of these individuals are identified in Schedule E of the Declaration of Taking as interested parties to the action. None of these individuals have filed an appearance or an answer. To assist the Court in determining the owners of compensable interests at the time of the taking, the United States has submitted to the Court a preliminary and final title policy, which indicates the owners of record at the time the Lis Pendens was recorded in Plaquemines Parish. The United States now requests that the Court (1) review the evidence submitted to determine who is entitled to receive just compensation for the 0.021 acres of land involved in this action and (2) make a determination of just compensation pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 71.1(h).
Federal courts sitting in condemnation cases are authorized to determine who among competing claimants held title to land prior to its condemnation. Clark v. White, 185 F.2d 528, 530 (5th Cir. 1950); United States v. 22, 680 Acres of Land, 438 F.2d 75, 77 (5th Cir. 1971); United States v. 1, 629.6 Acres of Land, 503 F.2d 764, 766 (3d Cir. 1974); United States v. Atomic Fuel Coal Co., 383 F.2d 1, 3 (4th Cir. 1967).
Pursuant to Rule 71.1 of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, the Court "tries all issues, including compensation, except when compensation must be determined by [a specially constituted tribunal or by a jury]." As the Supreme Court has observed:
The Rule provides that, except for the single issue of just compensation, the trial judge is to decide all issues, legal and factual, that may be presented.... It is for him to decide "all issues" other than the precise issue of the amount of compensation to be awarded.
United States v. Reynolds, 397 U.S. 14, 19-20 (1970). Thus, the Court has jurisdiction to determine whether a defendant-claimant has a compensable interest and is thus entitled to present evidence as to just compensation at a trial on that issue. Rule 71.1(h) reserves this determination, properly disposed of as a preliminary matter, to the Court.
In furtherance of its amicus curiae role regarding ownership issues, the United States has identified the persons who may have an ownership interest in Tract 345E; all informed by the title company's review of the chain of title. The United States submits that ...