Motions in Limine May be Used in Eminent Domain Proceedings to Determine Party's Interest in Property
"Motions in limine" are motions made shortly before trial, and they're typically filed in an attempt to limit the introduction of evidence to the jury. They are a powerful tool in eminent domain proceedings, and can be used to limit an appraiser's comparable sales, valuation methodology, or even the expert's entire testimony. In a recent unpublished California Court of Appeal decision, Verizon of California v. Carrick (2014 Cal. App. Unpub. LEXIS 5030), the Court even approved of the use of an in limine motion to determine whether a party had a compensable interest in the property being condemned.
In Verizon v. Carrick, Verizon filed an eminent domain action to acquire an easement to place underground fiber-optic cables along a road. The area at issue was privately owned, and Verizon named all the private property owners in the condemnation complaint. After securing an order for prejudgment possession to start the installation work, a home owner's association filed a motion to vacate on the ground that the road was owned and maintained by the association. The association also challenged Verizon's right to take the property, and ultimately succeeded in requiring Verizon to secure approval from the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) to condemn the property.
After Verizon obtained CPUC approval, the case moved forward to a valuation trial. Verizon filed a motion in limined to exclude the association's valuation appraiser, Chris Pedersen, on the grounds that the association did not own a compensable interest in the property being condemned. The trial court conducted a hearing pursuant to Evidence Code section 402, and concluded that the association could not participate in the condemnation action because it did not own any interest in real property. The appraiser was then limited to testify as to damages suffered by the individual property owners as a result of the condemnation (to whom the appraiser allocated 100% of the damages). After the valuation trial, the association appealed, arguing that an in limine motion was not a proper procedure to determine the association's standing to bring a claim.
While the Court of Appeal recognized a dislike for the use of in limine motions for dispositive issues, it explained there was no blanket prohibition on such use. Here, the Court found the in limine procedure was appropriate, as there was ample evidence the association had no interest in the real property. Moreover, there was no harm to the association: the trial court still allowed the appraiser to testify as to damages, and he allocated 100% of the damages to the private property owners.
The association made one last attempt to assert a claim through "associational standing," which applies where an association is seeking relief which would inure to the benefit of the organization's members. The Court also rejected this claim, concluding that associational standing is inappropriate where the harm is suffered by the organization's members and requires the participation in the individual members in the lawsuit.
It's tough to glean what really took place in this litigation. For instance, why was the association so adamant on making a claim if the individual property owners were already parties to the condemnation action and could seek 100% of the compensation? Similarly, why did Verizon wait until just before trial to address the association's interest in the property? And what happened with the association's effort to set aside the order for prejudgment possession? Unfortunately, there are a number of missing pieces to this story, but the take away is that in limine motions can be used for many purposes, including addressing whether a party has a compensable interest in the property being condemned.