Archive

Archive for the ‘Legal’ Category

The Oldest Vulnerability in the Constitutional Checks-and-Balances System

January 31, 2017 Leave a comment

The United States Marshals Service famously is the nation’s oldest federal law-enforcement agency. It supports the administration of the federal judiciary by providing courthouse, judge, and witness security and handling prisoner custody and fugitive apprehension, among other things that are difficult for judges, who tend to be limited to activities like issuing written orders and rulings, to accomplish as a practical matter.

Our conventional understanding of the checks-and-balances system does not accord much checking authority to the judiciary, however, which essentially is limited to declaring that a congressional or executive action is unconstitutional. If the chastised branch does not come to heel, there would seem to be little the judiciary can do, except perhaps issue another order.

In 1955, the Supreme Court did just that. Faced with inaction following its landmark ruling in Brown v. Bd. of Educ. of Topeka, 347 U.S. 483 (1954) (Brown I), which rejected in public schools the separate-but-equal segregation regime previously authorized under Plessy v. Ferguson, 163 U.S. 537 (1896), the Court issued its Brown II decision, demanding that schools desegregate “with all deliberate speed.” Brown v. Bd. of Educ. of Topeka, 349 U.S. 294, 301 (1955) (Brown II).

(Somewhat interestingly, some view the “with all deliberate speed” language not to mean “quickly,” which I think is how it is taught today, but as creating a “loophole . . . that allowed Southern states to stall racial equality.” This view may stem from the procedural particularities of the Brown II ruling, which sent various post-Brown I challenges back to various federal trial courts and charged those courts with the task of entering new “orders and decrees consistent with this opinion as are necessary and proper to admit to public schools on a racially nondiscriminatory basis with all deliberate speed the parties to these cases.” Id. Thus, “without an official court order, states could essentially take as little or as long a time as they deemed necessary to desegregate their school system.”)

Still, despite the Brown II reprimand, inaction persisted in some quarters such that necessitated President Dwight Eisenhower’s use of federal soldiers to force compliance in Little Rock.

Less than two weeks into his term, President Donald Trump’s administration has presented the nation with a similar sort of constitutional problem. On Friday, he issued an executive order banning non-citizens from entering the United States from Iraq, Syria, Sudan, Iran, Somalia, Libya, and Yemen for ninety days and suspending the Refugee Assistance Program for 120 days. The executive order also provides that, “upon the resumption of the [Refugee Assistance Program] . . . the Secretary of Homeland Security [] is further directed to . . . prioritize refugee claims made by individuals on the basis of religious-based persecution, provided that the religion of the individual is a minority religion in the individual’s country of nationality.” Given the executive order’s focus on countries with majority-Muslim populations, many recognize this language as a religious-based carve-out for Christians. Among other things, the executive order also places a cap– at 50,000– on the number of refugees who will be allowed to enter the country during fiscal year 2017.

The next day, multiple federal trial judges separately issued temporary restraining orders to petitioners who had arrived in the country with previously valid immigrant visas but were detained at airports under the new executive order and lawful permanent residents. The court orders are supposed to halt enforcement of key provisions of the executive order and prevent removal of affected individuals from the country. (Numerous other legal actions have been filed challenging the order.)

Precise information is difficult to come by, but there have been reports that U.S. Customs and Border Protection (the sub-agency of the Department of Homeland Security charged with law enforcement at the nation’s borders) officials were refusing to comply with the court orders staying enforcement of the executive order by continuing to detain or deport people attempting to enter the country and denying detainees access to legal counsel. A DHS press release stating that the agency would continue to enforce the executive order mentioned, though seemingly deemphasized, the court orders. A more recent press release from CBP asserts that the agency “immediately began taking steps to comply with the [court] orders and did so with professionalism.”

A refusal by the executive branch to comply with federal court orders could present an even more significant constitutional problem than the one at issue surrounding Brown, because it would present a direct challenge to the judiciary by a coequal branch, and because an Eisenhower-like intervention would be unavailable.

There is no obvious path to resolution of such a head-on affront to the authority of one branch of the federal government by another, and this particular gap in the federal governing apparatus is the most vulnerable one. While some have looked to the Marshals to address the currently brewing conflict, it remains unclear what they actually could or would do:

In the meantime, while the possibility of a constitutional crisis looms, uncertainty likely exists as a very real detrimental consequence for those directly affected by the conflicting executive and judicial orders.

As a momentary closing point, here is a recent passage from a judicial decision written by Judge Neil Gorsuch, the person President Trump this evening nominated to fill the Supreme Court vacancy created by the death of Justice Antonin Scalia, quoted in a news report, that suggests that a Justice Gorsuch would be concerned about separation-of-powers matters and would look upon an expanding executive branch in that context with a critical eye:

GUTIERREZ-BRIZUELA v. LYNCH: In this 2016 case, Gorsuch wrote for a panel of judges who sided with a Mexican citizen who was seeking permission to live in the U.S. The case gave Gorsuch an opportunity to raise an issue he has championed in his time as a judge: whether courts should so readily defer to federal agencies in determining what laws and regulations mean.

Referring to high-court cases that Gorsuch believes cede too much power to agencies, he wrote: “There’s an elephant in the room with us today. We have studiously attempted to work our way around it and even left it unremarked. But the fact is [Supreme Court precedent addressing executive-branch authority] permit executive bureaucracies to swallow huge amounts of core judicial and legislative power and concentrate federal power in a way that seems more than a little difficult to square with the Constitution of the framers’ design. Maybe the time has come to face the behemoth.”

Categories: Compassion, Current, Law, Legal, Politics

Things to Do in Alabama When You’re Dead

July 31, 2015 Leave a comment

If you die in the United States and your death is someone else’s fault, your surviving family members probably can recover legal damages (i.e., money) from the person who wrongfully caused your death. For example, Georgia allows a surviving spouse to recover “the full value of the life of the decedent, as shown by the evidence.” O.C.G.A. § 51-4-2(a). Placing a monetary value on a human life is a notion and, subsequently, a process fraught with moral, ethical, and practical obstacles, but, as democracy is to forms of government, we have come up with scant else in the way of providing a legal remedy to the surviving victims of a wrongful death. (Indeed, the availability of civil wrongful death actions offer these victims at least two things the criminal justice system does not provide: 1) the possibility of receiving tangible compensation– again, in the form of money– for the loss of their family member, and 2) the ability to control the legal action directly, as the plaintiff in the lawsuit, rather than as an observer to a criminal case controlled by a government prosecutor, who is not strictly bound by the wishes of surviving victims.)

If someone decides that you are going to make Alabama your eternal sweet home, though, things will go a bit differently for your surviving kin than they would had you died in neighboring Georgia, or, really, anywhere else in the country. Unlike those in other states, Alabama’s wrongful death statute does not afford survivors the right to recover based, in some measure, on the value of the life of the decedent; instead, Alabama courts have made clear that only punitive damages are available to wrongful death plaintiffs. Atkins v. Lee, 603 So.2d 937, 942-43 (Ala. 1992). Rather than compensating the surviving family of the deceased for the lost value of their deceased relative’s life, punitive damages are designed to punish the wrongdoer and thereby deter such wrongdoing in the future. Instead of the value of the life of the particular deceased individual, in Alabama, the sole measure of damages potentially available to wrongful death plaintiffs is based on the (jury’s view of the) reprehensibility of the wrongdoer’s action:

The amount of damages should be directly related to the amount of wrongdoing on the part of the defendant or defendants. In assessing damages, [the jury is] not to consider the monetary value of the life of the [deceased], for damages in this type of action are not recoverable to compensate the [family] of the deceased from a monetary standpoint on account of his death, nor to compensate the plaintiffs for any financial or pecuniary loss sustained by the family of the deceased on account of his death.

Id. at 943. As the Alabama Supreme Court explained, this restricted approach “rests upon the Divine concept that all human life is precious.” Id. at 942.

sfoa

Alabama’s adoption of the legislative premise, whether “Divine” or otherwise, “that all human life is precious” is laudable, but the state’s unique wrongful death statute does not necessarily operate to advance the goal of valuing all human life equally. First, it simply does not treat each case identically, as different juries will award different amounts to wrongful-death plaintiffs in different cases (based upon the reprehensibility of the wrongdoer’s action). Second, by taking a purely punitive stance, the civil action essentially duplicates the purpose of any companion criminal action. Third, and related to the second point, it is not obvious that a strictly punitive civil arrangement operates as a greater deterrent on actions resulting in wrongful deaths than the more common, compensatory schemes of other states. Fourth, and related to the third point, the practical effect of this statute is that it is more difficult for wrongful-death plaintiffs to collect in Alabama than it would be if their deceased relative died in a different state, because they must convince a jury of the (degree of) wrongfulness of the defendant’s actions that caused the decedent’s death instead of focusing on the value of the life lost, which can be challenging when the act that caused the death looks more like mere negligence than intentional homicide. Indeed, and fifth, the result of Alabama’s approach is that the wrongdoer effectively is allowed to determine the value of the life lost; whatever label the state applies to the variety of damages recoverable, it seems likely that plaintiffs in Alabama will, for all practical purposes, view whatever they recover in a wrongful death action to represent a measure of what they wrongfully lost.

There is nothing necessarily wrong with enacting idealistic or aspirational legislation. Such pronouncements can serve practical purposes, and a document like the Declaration of Independence would seem to serve as a good example. Legislatures must take care, though, that the immediate practical effects do not serve to undermine, in actual effect, the principled stance taken. When that happens, one rightly wonders about the government’s true aim. Is Alabama’s goal to treat “all human life [as] precious,” or is it simply to make the legal landscape less hospitable to wrongful death plaintiffs and their attorneys?

Categories: Compassion, Incentives, Law, Legal

A More Perfect Union?

June 30, 2015 1 comment

Last week, the United States Supreme Court delivered its decision in Obergefell v. Hodges, 576 U.S. ___ (2015), deciding unequivocally that “same-sex couples may exercise the fundamental right to marry in all States” and “that there is no lawful basis for a State to refuse to recognize a lawful same-sex marriage performed in another State on the ground of its same-sex character.” (Slip op. at 28).

While there is no question as to the result of the case, the Court’s journey to reach that result, as helmed by Justice Anthony Kennedy, does leave for the future some stones unturned, as highlighted, in part, by the dissenting opinion of Chief Justice John Roberts. In particular, the majority’s reasoning does not go as far as it could have to secure the protection of same-sex rights.

For all of its quotable flourishes, the majority opinion is, in Roberts’ words, “difficult to follow,” at least as concerns its technical underpinnings. Obergefell, 576 U.S. at ___ (Roberts, C.J., dissenting) (slip op. at 23). While Kennedy purports to rely upon both the due process and equal protection clauses of the Constitution’s Fourteenth Amendment, his equal protection analysis departs in all material respects from the Court’s established jurisprudence. This light treatment of the equal protection analysis is not so much a problem for this case– I believe the outcome can stand on the due process basis alone– as it is for future cases. Obergefell leaves unanswered a question many see as critical to the course of development of homosexual rights: what degree of scrutiny must courts apply in reviewing regulations that discriminate based upon sexual orientation?

Under the Fourteenth Amendment, equal protection generally means that the government must treat everyone the same. Courts have recognized that there are some instances when it is appropriate for the government to treat people differently, however. Men and women, like the old and the young, are alike in many respects, but not all, and there may be areas in which it makes sense for a law to treat people differently on the basis of their gender or age. When reviewing a law that discriminates based upon race, though, courts hold the government to a much higher standard, on the notion that there are few legitimate reasons to differentiate people on the basis of their race. Through the development of equal protection law, the Court has established a hierarchy of sorts that informs courts as to the degree of scrutiny they should apply in their review of a law that discriminates along a given line. The Obergefell majority missed an opportunity to enunciate where in that hierarchy sexual orientation belongs and thus establish a precedent for future treatment of state laws that discriminate on the basis of sexual orientation.

The meat of the disagreement between Kennedy’s majority opinion and Roberts’ dissent involves the due process component of the decision, and it boils down to a disagreement over the essence of the basic question presented to the Court.

The Fourteenth Amendment’s due process clause prohibits states from “depriv[ing] any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law.” U.S. Const. Am. XIV, s 1. As Roberts helpfully explains, “[t]his Court has interpreted the Due Process Clause to include a substantive component that protects certain liberty interests against state deprivation . . . . The theory is that some liberties are so rooted in the traditions and conscience of our people as to be ranked as fundamental, and therefore cannot be deprived without compelling justification.” Obergefell, 576 U.S. at ___ (Roberts, C.J., dissenting) (slip op. at 10) (citations and internal quotation marks omitted). The basic question under the due process analysis thus is whether the right asserted “rank[s] as fundamental.”

The disagreement between Kennedy and Roberts is not so much about the fundamentality of the right sought to be protected– although they do disagree along those lines– as about the very right itself. They do not even agree about what they are being asked to decide.

For Kennedy and the majority, the due process question is whether the right to marriage is fundamental. For Roberts, it is whether the right to same-sex marriage is fundamental. It is hardly a surprise that their paths would diverge when they began from different starting points. (Starting points they chose purposefully and with the bigger picture of the case in mind, to be certain.) For both, the analysis flows fairly naturally from there. Kennedy cites from ample historical and legal authorities to show that marriage is fundamental, while Roberts repeatedly points to the (many would say understandable) absence of the express inclusion same-sex couples in the historical and legal discourse surrounding marriage. While each seeks to score points against the other in the lengthy literature review portions of their opinions, the spread that matters is the one between the descriptions of the question before the Court.

While I appreciate Roberts’ structural critiques of the majority opinion, I find his framing of the question presented and the due process analysis that follows unsatisfying. On the other side, I agree that the result Kennedy reached is the correct one, but I think his reasoning could have been more robust.

One of the numerous subplots in this case involves whether and when courts should defer to legislatures, and while that subplot is less deserving of comment here because justices’ preferences for deference seem to shift with their preference for the legislative act at issue, Roberts makes a broader point with which I agree as a matter of fact: political results achieved through the democratic process (i.e., legislatures) are more robust than those achieved through litigation (i.e., the judiciary). See id. at 26-27. Roberts’ conclusion– that the Court should not intervene here because a result through the legislature would be more effective– does not follow, however. If the government has infringed upon a fundamental right, those injured as a result of that infringement should not have to wait for a remedy from their legislature, the very body that has acted to their detriment, simply because success there might prove more more immediately widely respected than a judicially ordered remedy.

Categories: Current, Law, Legal, Privatize

“The prettiest place on Earth was Baltimore at night”

April 30, 2015 1 comment

Eight months later, another American city is undertaking physical confrontation of questions sometimes forcefully presented that, distilled, are fundamentally straightforward. Answering them has proven challenging, however.

The binary nature of many of the relationships and interactions at issue can lead to both clarity and confusion. This remains a time for asking questions (and seeking answers to those questions), rather than drawing conclusions:

It is an open American wound in one of our great American cities, and any attempt to conscribe some “lesson” to be learned, some overarching A-to-B “The More You Know” takeaway is an insult to the density of the situation both in Baltimore and the rest of the country. (The president’s response Tuesday on this was telling; he actually apologized for giving such a long answer.) Life is impossibly confounding, from every angle — the best you can do is just try to have empathy for every individual human being and admit that none of us can truly know anything. I can’t boil it down to any conceivable essence without losing its bottomless complexity, and neither can you. Distrust those who try. They are attempting to sell you something.

At the risk of losing this site’s sponsoring advertisers, I will press on just a little further in order to note the following:

Justice demands that participants in the riots are identified, arrested, and charged with whatever crimes they committed. Their unjustifiable violence endangered innocents, destroyed businesses, and harmed the economic future of largely black neighborhoods; they earned the frustrated contempt of Baltimore’s mayor and members of its clergy and strengthened the hand of the public-safety unions that are the biggest obstacles to vital policing reforms.

But a subset of Baltimore police officers has spent years engaged in lawbreaking every bit as flagrant as any teen jumping up and down on a squad car, however invisible it is to CNN. And their unpunished crimes have done more damage to Baltimore than Monday’s riots. Justice also requires that those cops be identified and charged, but few are demanding as much because their brutality mostly goes un-televised. Powerless folks are typically the only witnesses to their thuggery. For too long, the police have gotten away with assaults and even worse. The benefit of the doubt conferred by their uniforms is no longer defensible.

(Hyperlink added.)

There exists a binary relationship between the law and the citizenry as well. In practice, the making of the former ought to reflect the– perhaps aspirational– values of the latter. The enactment of laws enshrining principles of equality is no small feat, a fact to which older generations can attest. Yet, as the exceeding of boiling points in Ferguson and Baltimore within the past year reveal, the still greater challenge remains the actual living under and abiding by those governing principles of equality.

For some, recent events in Ferguson and Baltimore come as revelations that fundamental power, class, and race conflicts persist in this country. (For many others, of course, knowledge of the reality of these conflicts did not come recently.) These protests and related events do not represent a step backward, though, because their underlying drivers are not new, and because the effort to carry out enacted policies of equality and justice comes as a natural and subsequent step following the enactment of those policies.

At this time, however, many questions remain.

Selective Executive

July 1, 2014 Leave a comment

Last year, I noted that President Barack Obama seemed to be selectively leveraging his executive muscle in favor of certain constituencies and not doing so to benefit others. Following the passage and effective date of the Affordable Healthcare Act (“ACA”), the President acted, probably in illegal fashion, to help the business community by delaying application of the new law’s burdens on employers. (As Jon Stewart noted at the time, the administration did not afford other constituencies, like young people, the same benefit.) What the President was willing to do– circumvent Congress to achieve a desired policy outcome– last July for businesses under the ACA he was not willing to do for immigrant families being split up under deportation laws last November, suddenly bemoaning that Congress was standing in his way (“When it comes to immigration reform, we have to have the confidence to believe we can get this done, and we should get it done. The only thing standing in our way right now is the unwillingness of certain Republicans in Congress to catch up with the rest of the country.”).

This seesaw pattern has continued in 2014, and others are catching on. Earlier this month, Glenn Greenwald noticed another executive power incongruity emanating from the White House, this time in the foreign policy context. Like his selective enforcement of the ACA, the President likely illegally circumvented Congress and released five Guantanamo Bay prisoners in exchange for the return of an American prisoner. The exchange provided a public reminder of many things, one of the most basic of which was that the U.S. prison at Guantanamo Bay remains open and operative, contrary to the President’s longstanding promise to close it. As Greenwald points out, “the sole excuse now offered . . . for this failure [to close Guantanamo] has been that Congress prevented [the President] from closing the camp.” He concludes: “either the president broke the law in releasing these five detainees, or Congress cannot bind the commander-in-chief’s power to transfer detainees when he wants, thus leaving Obama free to make those decisions himself. Which is it?”

If the President’s actions do not contradict his words, they at least illuminate his priorities. The President may truly desire all of the policy outcomes he professes to seek. By leveraging his executive might in pursuit of some of those outcomes and not others, though, he reveals which goals really matter to him. The above examples show that, for President Obama, helping businesses and securing the return of an American POW were high-priority goals, while helping immigrant families and closing the Guantanamo Bay prison are lesser priorities.

If there is a lesson here, it is not a new one: when evaluating a politician’s performance, we cannot merely rely on her own words. It is appropriate to measure a politician’s record against the rubric she makes for herself through campaign promises and other goal-setting pronouncements. In conducting that measuring, however, we must look to the politician’s actions, and we must look at them in context, not in isolation. When an elected leader shows that he is willing to exceed the legal confines of his office in order to achieve a goal, we should accord little weight to his complaint that the same legal obstacle, elsewhere ignored, precludes his achievement of another ostensibly desired goal. We may not reasonably be able to expect forthright honesty in our leaders’ self-critical evaluations, but we ought to demand that degree of thoroughness of our own critical evaluations of our leaders.

Categories: Action, Current, Legal, Politics

The Full Legacy of Public Policy Decisions

May 31, 2014 2 comments

The United States Department of Veterans Affairs is in the news these days, and not inappropriately. Tales of bureaucratic inefficiencies are legion, of course, and maddening as it is that this particular tale directly and significantly affects the lives of those arguably least deserving of abuse at the cumbersome hand of the federal government, it cannot be surprising that bureaucratic inefficiency adversely affects people in meaningful ways. This is not an unacknowledged problem.

Probably coincidentally, this recent spotlight on the VA’s lethal shortcomings has illuminated another, less recognized and thankfully less lethal, feature of our public policy apparatus: governmental policy decisions can give birth to longer, sometimes much longer, legacies than likely were ordinarily contemplated at the time the decision was made. The VA, of course, is not immune to this effect, as evidenced by the fact that there is a Wilkesboro, North Carolina woman receiving a monthly payment from the VA in ongoing satisfaction of a pension for her father’s military service in the Civil War. The story of Irene Triplett and her father, Mose Triplett, is a somewhat interesting one from a historical perspective, as is to be expected of such stories.

The Triplett family’s story also serves as a reminder that public policy decisions can be fraught with costs– broadly defined– that extend, in some respects unpredictably, long beyond their commonly anticipated scope. This is as true in war as it is in any other public undertaking. In 1974, there were nearly 28,000 families receiving veterans’ benefits as a result of service in Spanish-American War, fought for three and a half months in 1898. Last year, the VA paid $2.2 billion to nearly 219,000 families for service in World War II, which ended in 1945. (Click the image and scroll to the bottom of the page for interactive functionality.)

longcostsofwar

Rarely, one must believe, do policy makers or citizens contemplate at the time the country enters into a military conflict that the financial costs of the decision to go to war might extend over 150 years beyond the conclusion of that war. And while the discussion thus far has emphasized the long life of the financial commitment of an engagement in armed conflict, we are only beginning to recognize the scope of the legacy of the real medical and social costs of armed conflict that the tallying of VA benefits is unlikely to capture in full.

This phenomenon is not limited to the military context, of course. Many laws have “sunset” provisions that purport to set an expiration date, which legislatures subsequently may extend, for the legislation. Judicially enunciated policies can operate similarly. The Supreme Court justices themselves are an example. President Gerald Ford appointed John Paul Stevens as an associate justice in 1975. (President Richard Nixon appointed Stevens to the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals in 1970.) Justice Stevens served on the Supreme Court until 2010, four years after Ford died. Ford thus continued to influence public policy from the grave. Indeed, Stevens, who is still alive, continues to influence public policy through speeches and other appearances to this day.

Humans are not great at contemplating the long-term consequences of their actions. This cognitive deficiency extends, with consequences, to their enactment of public policies. Rather than punt difficult decisions to future generations, the better approach may be to limit such policies to short-term effectiveness with opportunities to reconsider them down the road.

Categories: Current, Legal, Politics

Eminent Corporate Domain: Double-Dipping and Alter Egos

January 31, 2014 Leave a comment

From the first-ever eminent domain case to one of the most recent: Last week, the Georgia Supreme Court decided Dept. of Transp. v. McMeans, No. S13G0614 (Jan. 21, 2014), a case involving the condemnation of land owned by a man named Brian McMeans. McMeans Leasing, Inc. (“MLI”), a corporation solely owned by McMeans, operated as a business on the land.

McMeans filed an answer acknowledging ownership in the condemned property. MLI then filed an “amendment” to McMeans’ answer, asserting that McMeans’ original answer was for MLI; that it was a leasehold tenant on the property; and that it would suffer business-loss damages as a result of its removal from the property. McMeans filed another answer for himself, asserting that he would suffer damages from a) loss of the use of the property; b) interruption in business income; c) loss of business; and d) damage to business; in addition to the value of the property itself. McMeans then sought to amend his answer to add a separate business loss claim. The Georgia Department of Transportation (“DOT”) moved to strike MLI’s answer and McMean’s answer adding the business-loss claim, and the trial court granted DOT’s motion. McMeans immediately appealed.

The Georgia Court of Appeals reversed the trial court and, citing Dept. of Transp. v. Acree Oil Co., 266 Ga. 366 (1996), ruled that business loss is recoverable as a separate element of damages where the landowner owns the business and the taking results in a total loss of the business.

The Georgia Supreme Court reversed the appellate court. The court agreed with the court of appeals that, under Georgia law as enunciated in Acree Oil Co., business loss is recoverable as a separate element of damages (separate from the value of the taken land, the primary measure of damages in condemnation cases) when the business belongs to a lessee other than the landowner or when the landowner owns the business and the taking results in a total loss of the business. Basic tenets of corporate law apply to distinguish as separate legal entities McMeans and MLI, even though McMeans is the sole owner of MLI. Because MLI “owned the business located and operated on the condemned property,” MLI, not McMeans, was the party that could properly assert the business-loss claim.

Was McMeans’ error here the result of a basic misunderstanding of corporate law principles or a lack of precision in pleading? The inelegant series of answers and amended answers filed at the beginning of the action suggests he appreciated to some degree the legal distinction between himself, a natural person, and MLI, a corporate person, each with different, concurrent interests– an ownership estate and a leasehold estate, respectively– in the condemned realty.

My initial read of the case was that McMeans was trying to double dip: he wanted to claim business-loss damages for himself and for MLI. The Georgia Supreme Court appears to have interpreted the case that way as well, because it emphasized its corporate-law analysis, seemingly admonishing McMeans for forgetting that he and MLI were separate entities, and not engaging in any significant analysis of condemnation-law.

Maybe McMeans was trying to double dip by simultaneously respecting that he and MLI were separate legal entities and acting as MLI’s alter ego. The condemnation-recovery principle from Acree Oil Co. does seem to offer a potential avenue for McMeans, though:

Post-taking business losses can be recovered as a separate legal element in instances when the business belongs to a separate lessee or when the business belongs to the landowner and there is a total taking of the business.

Because “[t]he distinct corporate entity MLI owned the business located and operated on the condemned property,” the business-loss claim belonged to MLI, not McMeans.

While the court viewed this case under the first prong of the Acree Oil Co. language quoted above, as an “instance[] when the business belongs to a separate lessee,” the second– an “instance[] . . . when the business belongs to the landowner and there is a total taking of the business,” also seems to apply. McMeans, the landowner, does “own the business,” after all, even as “the business,” MLI, leases the land from McMeans.

Alternatively, as a matter of practical corporate law practice and parlance, “the business” and MLI may not be synonymous here. The possible confusion raised in the previous paragraph does illuminate the rub of this case, however. The administration of the power of eminent domain, in its compensatory facet, must balance the interests of those with direct interests in the taken property against those of the general public, the ultimate source of the compensatory funds. Double dipping by someone like McMeans harms the public at large. Additionally, when a corporate personhood element is in play, respecting corporate formalities is important in every case in order to protect the interests of, for example, leasehold tenants that lack a close legal relationship to the landowner.

Whatever entity “owns the business” in the McMeans case, there was only one business operating on the taken land, and the state therefore should pay, at most, one business-loss claim. In McMeans, as a practical matter, it did not make a difference whether McMeans or MLI brought the business-loss claim, as sole owner of MLI; McMeans was going to receive the money either way. By allowing only MLI to bring the business-loss claim, the court reached the correct result: it protected the citizens of Georgia from paying a windfall, and it protected the independent right of others with leasehold interests to recover in future condemnation actions.

Categories: Current, Legal, Privatize