Louisiana Supreme Court sympathizes with levee district in dispute with property owner

By Sam Knef | Apr 11, 2017

NEW ORLEANS — The Supreme Court of Louisiana has upheld a statute that balances landowners' rights and the construction and maintenance of levee systems enacted in the wake of Hurricane Katrina.

But in its decision, the high court reversed an award of more than $140,000 in attorneys' fees to Chad Jarreau and Bayou Construction & Trucking Co. and against the South Lafourche Levee District.

It reduced fees to $2,635.57.

The 2006 statute in question amended state law related to compensation for property owners who live within levee districts "with a particular focus on appropriations for use in hurricane protection projects," the ruling said. The statute also addresses attorneys' fees.

In a 4-1 decision, the court concluded that the amended statute "reduced, rather than eliminated" what could be paid to property owners for land taken for hurricane protection projects.

Justices found that fair market value of property based on its current use at the time it was appropriated for protection projects should be paid versus the "full extent of the loss," according to the ruling.

The underlying dispute arose from a complaint the levee district filed against Jarreau, a Lafourche Parish resident who owns a 17.1 acre tract of land partially within the appropriated area, which also was used for his dirt excavation and hauling business, Bayou Construction & Trucking.

Jarreau rejected a monetary offer from the levee district for an approximate 1-acre portion of appropriated land that backs up to a canal and continued to excavate dirt from the area due to contractual obligations, the ruling states.

At the trial court level, a judge awarded the levee district $16,956 for the dirt excavated from the appropriated property; it also awarded Jarreau $11,869 as "just compensation" for the appropriated land and $164,705.40 for business and economic losses.

The amount of attorneys' fees awarded at the trial court level, $43,811.85, was reversed by an appeals court, which found the trial court was wrong to apply a 25 percent cap under statute rather than awarding reasonable attorneys’ fees actually incurred, the ruling states.

Justice Jefferson Hughes was the sole dissenting voice on the court, writing "something is wrong" with government taking private property without properly compensating the owner.

"Defendant is in the dirt business and owns land from which he digs and sells dirt," Hughes wrote. "The government is entitled to 'appropriate' defendant’s land, but must pay him fair compensation mandated by the Constitution. This court affirms an award of $11,869 despite evidence in the record that the dirt taken from the land has a value in excess of $100,000. Even if the most restrictive measure of compensation is applied, this value should be considered in determining the award to defendant. When the government can take private property without paying the landowner, something is wrong."

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