Property dispute: Land valued $883,000 cost taxpayers millions

Although this case did not originate in Massachusetts, Massachusetts residents will end up paying for a portion of it. Last month, a federal judge ruled the United States Department of Justice must pay more than $2.24 million in legal fees and litigation costs for a real estate dispute that lasted almost ten years and involved converting private land into public use.

That land’s estimated market value was $883,000. But what was at issue was the attorneys fees, which the DOJ ‘vigorously contested’ for several years before finally settling the case with the land owners, per a judge’s ruling. The fees were awarded to three separate law firms involved in the class-action suit. The judge said the court had been involved with this complex case since 1999 and was clearly aware of the obscure legal issues surrounding it.

The judge was convinced the case could not have been successfully litigated if not for the specialized expertise of the out-of-state law firms involved in the case. A lead attorney for the plaintiff said in court papers that the government’s denying liability for the land was its top priority. It took private land it did not have a right to take without payment and continually denied over a nine year period that it did anything wrong.

To then lose the case and then complain about the legal fees incurred by the plaintiffs in protecting their constitutional rights is a waste of tax payer money, said the attorney. Another attorney involved in the case said he estimates the case cost taxpayers roughly $4 million in legal fees for both the government’s attorneys and the plaintiffs, all to resolve an $883,000 liability.

And, he said, thousands of other similar cases are pending in the U.S. Court of Federal Claims. Once a case is settled and the government is constitutionally obligated to pay owners for property it has taken, there is no reason for protracted litigation. This strategy would fail in private practice.

Source: Legal Times “DOJ Ordered to Pay $2.24M in Legal Fees in Property Dispute,” Mike Scarcella, April 25, 2012