The Appellate Division of the New Jersey Superior Court recently held that a trial court cannot reinstate a condemnation commissioners’ award fixing just compensation for a temporary taking after dismissing both parties’ appeals in the condemnation case.
The Facts of the Case
In State of New Jersey, by the Commissioner of Transportation v. Shalom Money Street, L.L.C., both the State and the property owner, Shalom Money Street LLC (Shalom) filed appeals from the commissioners’ award fixing just compensation for a temporary taking. The State had filed a motion in limine to bar Shalom’s expert opinion on the value of the taking, arguing that Shalom’s expert had appraised the entire 0.728 acres of Shalom’s property and not the property actually taken. Shalom also filed a motion to bar the State’s expert opinion, contending that it was a net opinion.
The trial court granted both motions and noted that the parties needed expert testimony only as to the value of the easement taken. The State and Shalom jointly requested an adjournment of the trial for 100 days to retain experts and schedule depositions. The court denied the adjournment request and asked the parties to submit briefs on why it should not enter an order confirming the award of the condemnation commissioners.
Relying on the applicable section of the Eminent Domain Law, specifically N.J.S.A. 20:3-12(h), both the State and Shalom argued that the commissioners’ award can only become a final judgment if no appeal is taken. They argued further that, because the appeal is a trial de novo, the appeal rendered the commissioners’ award void and since the award ceased to exist once their appeals were filed, the court could not reinstate the award as a final judgment. Both the State and Shalom submitted that, without the jury trial required by their appeals, the property owner would be denied the just compensation guaranteed under N.J. Const. art. I, § 20.
The Court’s Decision
The Appellate Division agreed that the trial court was not authorized to reinstate the commissioners’ award. As explained in the opinion, “Because the commissioners’ award only becomes a final judgment if no timely objection is made, the filing of the appeal renders the commissioners’ award ‘nugatory.’ State v. N.J. Zinc Co., 40 N.J. 560, 573 (1963). In short, there is no final judgment to be reinstated.”
The court further held that cases relied upon by the trial court do not support a contrary view. In the cases cited by the court, the sole objection to the commissioners’ award was withdrawn. As a result, the only impediment to the award becoming a final judgment was removed. In the instant case, the court noted that neither the State nor Shalom withdrew its objection to the award.
“Although the exclusion of expert reports had a damaging impact upon the ability to try the case, that fact related to the strength of the parties’ cases and not to whether their objections to the award had been withdrawn. Because the commissioners’ award did not become a final judgment pursuant to N.J.S.A. 20:3-12(h), or as the result of the parties withdrawing their objections to the award, the trial court erred in reinstating the commissioners’ award,” the panel concluded.
For more information about this case or the legal issues involved, we encourage you to contact a member of Scarinci Hollenbeck’s Government Law Group.