The Florida Supreme Court ruled Thursday that a formula in the state law used to calculate attorneys’ fees in state eminent domain cases is unconstitutional where there is excessive litigation by the condemning public authority. The Court issued its ruling in response to a certified question of great public importance from the Fifth District Court of Appeal, arising out of a dispute between a group of condemnees against the Central Florida Expressway Authority.
The Court stressed the importance of preserving private property owners’ right to full compensation in eminent domain cases under the Florida Constitution, while maintaining consideration of the Florida Legislature’s previous actions setting the benefits-achieved formula for calculating attorneys’ fees. “We conclude that where private property owners are forced to defend against excessive litigation caused by a condemning authority, a mandatory statutory formula that generates a fee award below that which is considered reasonable denies those property owners their right to the full compensation that is guaranteed by the Florida Constitution,” Justice R. Fred Lewis wrote in the Supreme Court’s opinion.
The Supreme Court declined to attempt to define what constitutes excessive litigation, saying only that it is generally litigation that “diverges from what both trial courts and the legal community would normally expect” in a standard eminent domain case, and that the state’s trial courts are best suited to make that determination.