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The State of South Dakota v. Philip G. Clark

May 11, 2011

THE STATE OF SOUTH DAKOTA, ACTING BY AND THROUGH THE DEPARTMENT OF TRANSPORTATION AND THE SOUTH DAKOTA TRANSPORTATION COMMISSION,
PLAINTIFF AND APPELLANT,
v.
PHILIP G. CLARK, P & J ENTERPRISES, L.L.C. AND HANSEN MANUFACTURING, CORPORATION,
DEFENDANTS AND APPELLEES.



APPEAL FROM THE CIRCUIT COURT OF THE SECOND JUDICIAL CIRCUIT MINNEHAHA COUNTY, SOUTH DAKOTA HONORABLE GENE PAUL KEAN Judge

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Gilbertson, Chief Justice

CONSIDERED ON BRIEFS ON MARCH 21, 2011

[¶1.] The South Dakota Department of Transportation (DOT) obtained title to the defendants' land through eminent domain. The jury determined the amount of just compensation to award for the taking of defendants' land. The trial court awarded prejudgment interest. As a result of the total award including prejudgment interest, the landowner was awarded attorneys' fees and expert witness fees under SDCL 21-35-23. The DOT challenges the award of attorneys' fees and expert witness fees. We affirm.

FACTS

[¶2.] P&J Enterprises, whose principal shareholder was Phil Clark, owned property on West 12th Street in Sioux Falls, South Dakota. The property was leased to Hansen Manufacturing Corporation.*fn1 The DOT contacted Clark about construction on West 12th Street to widen the road, which would require taking a portion of Clark's land. After the DOT and Clark were unable to negotiate terms for the taking, the DOT resorted to eminent domain. The DOT obtained title to the property in January 2006 through a "quick-take" proceeding under SDCL ch. 31-19. [¶3.] The DOT filed a final offer before trial in the amount of $277,550.00. Clark rejected that offer.*fn2 At trial, the sole issue presented to the jury was the amount of just compensation for the taking. The jury returned a verdict in the amount of $320,000.00. The trial court added prejudgment interest of $21,074.91, bringing the total to $341,074.91. SDCL 21-35-23 provides that a landowner is entitled to attorney and expert witness fees if the "amount of just compensation awarded to the defendant by final judgment" exceeds the final offer by at least 20%. The trial court held that under SDCL 21-35-23, an award of prejudgment interest must be added to the amount of the jury verdict before it can be compared to the final offer before trial in order to determine if expert witness and attorneys' fees are appropriate. In this case, the compensation awarded to Clark exceeds the final offer by 20% only if the prejudgment interest award is included. The trial court concluded Clark's award exceeded the 20% threshold and, as a result, awarded attorneys' fees in the amount of $51,940.00 and expert witness fees in the amount of $17,732.85 under SDCL 21-35-23. [¶4.] On appeal, the DOT raises one issue:

Whether the trial court erred in awarding expert witness and attorneys' fees under SDCL 21-35-23 when the final judgment exceeded the final offer before trial by 20% only if prejudgment interest was included.

STANDARD OF REVIEW

[¶5.] "Statutory interpretation is a question of law, reviewed de novo." Nodak Mut. Ins. Co. v. McDowell , 2010 S.D. 54, ¶ 7, 784 N.W.2d 483, 485.

The purpose of statutory construction is to discover the true intention of the law, which is to be ascertained primarily from the language expressed in the statute. The intent of a statute is determined from what the Legislature said, rather than what the courts think it should have said, and the court must confine itself to the language used. Words and phrases in a statute must be given their plain meaning and effect. When the language in a statute is clear, certain, and unambiguous, there is no reason for construction, and [this] Court's only function is to declare the meaning of the statute as clearly expressed.

In re Guardianship of S.M.N., T.D.N., and T.L.N. , 2010 S.D. 31, ¶ 9, 781 N.W.2d 213, 217-18.

ANALYSIS

[¶6.] The Fifth Amendment of the United States Constitution provides that "[n]o person shall be . . . deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor shall private property be taken for public use, without just compensation." Article VI, § 13 of the South Dakota Constitution provides in part that "[p]rivate property shall not be taken for public use, or damaged, without just compensation, which will be determined according to legal procedure established by the Legislature and according to § 6 of this article." The legal procedure established by the Legislature at issue here is whether Clark should be awarded attorneys' and expert witness fees under SDCL 21-35-23. [¶7.] SDCL 21-35-23 provides:

If the amount of compensation awarded to the defendant by final judgment in proceedings pursuant to this chapter is twenty percent greater than the plaintiff's final offer which shall be filed with the court having jurisdiction over the action at the time trial is commenced, and if that total award exceeds seven hundred dollars, the court shall , in addition to such taxable costs as are allowed by law, allow reasonable attorney fees and compensation for not more than two expert witnesses, all as determined by the court. (Emphasis added.)*fn3 The DOT does not contest that Clark is entitled to prejudgment interest nor does it argue that the trial court incorrectly calculated the amount of interest or fees. Instead, the DOT argues that prejudgment interest cannot be included within "compensation" when making the comparison to the final offer before trial.

[¶8.] To support its position, the DOT advances several arguments on appeal.*fn4 First, the DOT argues that the language of SDCL 21-35-23 does not support the trial court's decision because it does not explicitly require that prejudgment interest be added to the verdict. Specifically, the DOT asserts that in an eminent domain case, "compensation" does not necessarily include prejudgment interest. Instead, the DOT maintains that "compensation" must be understood in the context of SDCL ch. 21-35, which provides in several sections that the jury decides the amount of compensation. See SDCL 21-35-1, -15. Further, prejudgment interest, in contrast, is decided by the trial court and therefore should not be ...


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