In a case in which TCJL participated as amicus curiae, the Texas Supreme Court has reversed a split Waco Court of Appeals decision holding that a Walker County Court at Law did not have jurisdiction over an eminent domain case because the alleged damages exceeded the dollar cap on the amount in controversy imposed by §25.0003(c)(1) on a county court’s additional jurisdiction. The case, In re Breviloba (No. 21-0541) arose from a suit brought by a pipeline company against a landowner in the county court at law to condemn a 50-foot-wide pipeline easement. The landowner, among other things, sought $13 million in damages and moved to transfer the case to district, which the court denied. The Waco Court of Appeals, over a dissent, granted the landowner’s petition for mandamus and ordered the transfer, reasoning that the amount in controversy exceeded the county court’s $250,000 amount in controversy cap.

In a per curiam opinion without oral argument, SCOTX reversed. The Court’s analysis of the varying levels of jurisdiction granted to county courts at law notes the patchwork nature of the system and ultimately concluded that §21.001, Property Code, grants independent jurisdiction to county courts at law in eminent domain cases to which the cap on the amount in controversy does not attach. According to the Court, the cap only applies to a county court’s additional jurisdiction, not to the primary grant in §21.001. Moreover, once a county court at law has jurisdiction over an eminent domain case, that jurisdiction extends to all of the issues that may be raised, including the condemnor’s right to condemn (which the landowner contests in this case). “Jurisdiction over ‘eminent domain cases,’” the Court observes, “would be a hollow grant without the ability to adjudicate condemnation authority.” While the landowner attempted to recast its claim as a bad faith or fraud claim (alleging that Breviloba was a “sham entity” designed to invoke eminent domain authority where it did not previously exist), the “gravamen” of the claim involves the entity’s right to condemn, which is properly adjudicated in an eminent domain proceeding.

TCJL’s brief in support of Breviloba’s petition argued the following: “Whether a case constitutes an ‘eminent domain case’ is determined once and for all when an entity with the power of eminent domain [i.e., claiming such authority] files the statutorily required condemnation petition. In other words, the nature of the case does not change when the property owner appends various and sundry claims to it, as the owner belatedly did here. It remains an eminent domain case and should only be transferred under the limited conditions set out in Section 21.002. The legislature designed Chapter 21 to incentivize condemnors and property owners to reach voluntary agreements without the need for costly and protracted litigation. The court of appeals’ opinion will have the opposite effect: it incentivizes litigation by permitting property owners who don’t like the way a condemnation proceeding is going to try their luck in a different court.” Fortunately for the eminent domain process, SCOTX agreed.

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