Jack Sperber didn’t plan on going into eminent domain practice. He didn’t even like his real estate class in law school. But when he joined Faegre Baker Daniels after graduation he split his practice between eminent domain and business litigation work and ended up falling in love with the eminent domain work. He likes that cases go to trial more often than other areas of civil litigation. He likes the breadth of people and companies he encounters in the cases. And he likes the incentive to play well with others created by the small size of Colorado’s eminent domain lawyer community.
“With people sometimes being aligned on one side and sometimes not and seeing each other over and over, it encourages all the good behavior you want to have in a lawyer to begin with,” Sperber said. He estimated Colorado has about 15 to 20 lawyers who focus on eminent domain full time and said the rest of the U.S. also tends to have a small pool of attorneys in the practice.
“For the most part, eminent domain lawyers fight about the stuff they need to fight about, but you don’t engage in a lot of nasty discovery disputes and some of the other stuff you see in other forms of litigation,” he said. Sperber’s practice has expanded to include cases that take him all over the U.S. He said that same collegiality makes an interesting dynamic for a lawyer who’s new to a state and folding into the already tight-knit community.
Sperber just wrapped up a valuation trial last week for a client whose property is being taken by Denver for the National Western Center redevelopment project. And he also represented an industrial landowner this year whose property was acquired for the same project and ultimately received a $28.50 million award plus attorney fees and costs.
As a new lawyer, Sperber cut his teeth on litigation that came out of takings for major public projects like DIA’s construction, I-25’s widening and building Denver’s light rail system. Sperber has represented both landowners and condemners, and he believes that’s an advantage. He can understand what motivates each side, and he said each side respecting the other’s position goes a long way toward finding common ground.
Most eminent domain disputes tend to be over the amount of just compensation an entity owes a landowner whose property they’re taking, rather than whether the entity can take the property in the first place. Just compensation depends on whether part or all of the property is being taken. If it’s only part of it, compensation takes into account both the value of the property being taken and the effect of the taking on the rest of property that remains with the owner.
Sperber recalled a woman he represented who owned a farmhouse and eventually E-470 came through her backyard. Even though the value of her residence wasn’t huge, the mountain view from her home was meaningful for her, and there were damages associated with E-470 disrupting that. Sperber said he enjoys when he can represent clients whose property has such personal value to them.
He estimated less than 5 percent of eminent domain disputes involve whether a property taking can happen in the first place. They tend to come up the most, he said, in the context of urban renewal because the intended property use’s public good isn’t always obvious to everyone.
“Nobody says we don’t need new highways. Everybody recognizes we’ve got to do that, and the only way you can build highways is you have to have the ability to take property,” he said. “It’s a lot harder for people to understand why it’s O.K. for somebody’s private property to be taken so a private entity can build a new office building.”
Sperber said over time, jurors and commission members have seemed to become more sympathetic toward property owners in the plight of having their property taken. When he’s in trial, he has to bring those hearing his case up to speed on a lot of complex eminent domain rules. He said it typically requires a lot of education regardless of who is hearing a case.
In Colorado, a party in an eminent domain case can choose to try their case in front of a jury or an appointed three-member commission. Sperber said commission hearings are like a hybrid of a jury trial and arbitration, because a judge appoints the commission members and instructs them on the law, but the commission acts as the judge during the trial and rules on admissibility of evidence.
Commissions tend to be chaired by retired judges or trial lawyers and also include professionals who have relevant knowledge of the case, so they are more sophisticated than an average jury.
“Even if you’re a real estate lawyer or a real estate appraiser in an ordinary practice, there are a lot of special rules that apply in eminent domain cases, and certain hypotheticals that we have to engage in,” he said.
Sperber said one of the simpler rules to explain is that of project influence, which means just compensation for a property taking can’t consider any positive or negative effects of the project it’s being taken for on the real estate value. But even though it sounds simple, the rule still has complex effects on a case’s moving parts such as what evidence can be considered and analyzing the sale.
“It’s not rocket science, but it takes time practicing in the area to see those things, and you have to explain to the judges why this is different than what they’re used to,” Sperber said. He added most judges don’t see a lot of eminent domain cases to begin with, and that’s further diminished because the trials so often go before a commission instead.
Though Sperber enjoys trial work, he said he takes responsibility for advising clients early about whether they should or shouldn’t be litigating their cases. Litigation isn’t always necessary, whether the parties can come to an agreement for changing a project design so it doesn’t harm the property owner’s remaining interest, or because litigation just wouldn’t make economic sense.
“Despite me saying I love to try cases, I recognize that my clients don’t want to be trying cases,” he said. “And it would be a short career if I just took every case to trial because I like it.”
Sperber likes that his work has results he can literally see. He can drive around in different places in the state and see a finished project he represented an involved party in. Sperber said he attended a conference a few years ago that included a retrospective of Denver’s public projects and how they’ve changed the city and the economy
“A lot of lawyers don’t see their work out and about,” he said. “It’s kind of fun to feel like you’ve been a part of some of the things that are happening in the city.”
— Julia Cardi