Maryland Appellate Court: Condemnation Jury Trials are the Status Quo
Earlier this year, the Maryland Court of Special Appeals reviewed a lower court’s decision that prevented a self-represented property owner from having her valuation case heard by a jury. The primary issue on appeal was whether it was legally correct for the lower court to hold the condemnation trial without a jury. The full decision can be found here.
By way of background, the property owner was self-represented in a condemnation case. On September 16, 2020, in a telephone status conference with the court, the property owner and counsel for the City appeared to agree to a bench trial. Shortly thereafter, on October 1, 2020, the property owner requested “to change from no jury trial to a jury trial” in a filing captioned “Trial Memorandum, Response from Defendant.” Ultimately, the matter was tried as a bench trial and decided by a judge because the property owner failed to request a jury trial via a formal motion or on the record at a court hearing. The property owner appealed to the Maryland Court of Special Appeals.
The appellate court held that it was an error to hold the trial without a jury and remanded the matter. Under Maryland condemnation law, the matter shall be heard by a jury unless all parties file a written election submitting the case to the court for determination. The court acknowledged that there was confusion as to the property owner’s jury request, likely in part due to the fact that the property owner was self-represented. However, the court determined that regardless of whether the property owner did or not did request a jury trial, the Maryland condemnation statute expressly states that the matter will be heard by a jury unless there is a written election to have it heard by the court instead. In this matter, it was clear that there was no written election transferring the matter to a bench trial.
New Jersey has a slightly different procedure regarding the right to a jury trial in a condemnation case. The condemning authority’s right to condemn is adjudicated as a “summary proceeding”, decided by a judge without a jury. See R. 4:73-1. Once the right to condemn is decided, the N.J. Eminent Domain Act provides that the valuation portion of a condemnation case shall be tried “without a jury, unless a jury be demanded.” See N.J.S.A. 20:3-13(b). Additionally, N.J. Court Rules state that a property owner “may demand trial by jury.” R. 4:73-6(b). Thus, while New Jersey law does permit the parties to demand a jury trial in a condemnation matter, such procedure is not automatically provided for as is the case in Maryland. To guarantee a jury trial, a litigant in New Jersey needs to act affirmatively by requesting one in writing. Once that is done by either party, the right to a jury trial cannot be denied unless all parties waive the jury demand in writing. The jury demand in the eminent matters should be included in the complaint or first answering pleading, but can also be included in a Notice of Appeal from a condemnation commissioners’ award.
In most cases in New Jersey, both the condemning agency and the property owner will want and will request a jury trial so that a jury, usually consisting of 6 persons with two alternates, can decide the amount of compensation that will make an owner whole for its loss. However, in eminent domain matters involving the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, that governmental entity (a bistate agency) is authorized to take property in the state without a statutory right to a jury trial to determine the just compensation owed to the property owner. See N.J.S.A. 32:1-1, et seq. There are also other procedural differences between a taking by the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey and other state or local agencies in New Jersey. Practitioners should be familiar with the broad gamut of New Jersey procedures and deadlines that govern condemnation practice. If you are confronted with a governmental taking and need guidance regarding the proper procedure to follow, please contact McKirdy, Riskin, Olson & DellaPelle, P.C. to speak with an experienced condemnation attorney.