Thursday, April 12, 2007

Sapero v. Mayor and City Council of Baltimore (Ct. of Appeals)

Filed April 12, 2007. Opinion by Judge Dale R. Cathell.

From the official headnote:
Headnote: Code of Public Local Laws of Baltimore City, §21-16 requires that, in order to utilize quick-take condemnation, the City of Baltimore demonstrate why, because of some exigency or emergency, it is necessary and in the public interest for the City to take immediate possession of a particular property.
On direct appeal to the Court of Appeals, the Court VACATED the judgment of the Baltimore City Circuit Court allowing the quick-take of Sapero's property, and REMANDED the case for further proceedings consistent with this opinion.

In a factual situation very similar to that considered in the recent Valsamaki case (discussed in this post), the Court once again considered litigation stemming from an attempt by the city of Baltimore (the "City") to exercise its quick-take condemnation powers, this time against the owner of the old Chesapeake Restaurant property and other parcels (the "Property"), as part of Charles North Urban Renewal Plan for the Charles North Revitalization Area.

In this case, after being authorized in June 2004 to purchase the Property, the City negotiated with the owner to acquire the Property until December, 2005, when it filed an action for regular condemnation and petitioned for immediate possession and title. The trial court granted the City's petition. Sapero timely answered the petition, and filed a motion to vacate. After several postponements, the trial court finally held a hearing on March 20, 2006, granted the City's petitions and denied Sapero's motion to vacate, and denied Sapero's subsequent motion to alter or amend judgment.

On appeal, Sapero raised several questions, some of which the Court "briefly comment[ed] on" in a footnote, but the case was resolved on two of them. The first, and dispositive, issue was the total lack of evidence to support the required "immediate need" for possession under the quick-take statute. This matter had been decided below prior to the Valsamaki case, and therefore the trial judge did not have the benefit of the Court's ruling in that case that the City must demonstrate the reasons why it is necessary for it to have immediate possession and title to a particular property. Here, as in Valsamaki, there was no such sufficient showing.

The Court noted that there was more than 19 months from the time it was authorized to acquire the Property before it filed for quick-take condemnation, a time period sufficient to allow for discovery in a regular condemnation proceeding, and that the City had requested at least one postponement during the proceedings. By contrast, the trial judge denied Sapero a requested continuance, based upon the perceived urgency imposed by the quick-take statute.

In considering Sapero's due process challenge to the statute and its use in this case, the Court noted that the nature of a quick-take proceeding limits the availability of discovery, and therefore limits the ability of the property owner to investigate the appropriateness of the condemnation and challenge it effectively. The Court noted that in this case there was no indication that Sapero's request for answers to interrogatories, production of documents and admissions had ever been answered by the City, highlighting the due process constraints imposed by quick-take proceedings.

Given the potential for due process violations created by the expedited quick-take remedy, and the specific language of the statute, the Court affirmed the principle established in Valsamaki, that the City must establish that such truncated procedures are "warranted by extreme circumstances" and are in the public interest. Here, as in Valsamaki, there was virtually no evidence of any kind that any such extreme circumstances existed, but rather it appeared that the City was using quick-take proceedings to gain a litigation and negotiating advantage rather than proceeding from and with the requisite justification demanded by the federal and state due process requirements, and the specific language of the statute.

The opinion is available in PDF format.

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