What are the benefits to hiring an eminent domain lawyer, and do you really need one?
You don't know what you don't know. Very few Americans have had eminent domain used to take their land.
you can have a lawyer at no cost out-of-pocket in most cases.
stronger negotiations. Eminent domain lawyers know what to look for in an easement agreement and can give you an advantage over doing it alone.
expertise. Consider starting an Easement Action Team in your area.
Eminent domain should only be used in the rarest of circumstances, therefore, it is not something most Americans have had experience with. Having a good lawyer who specializes in eminent domain will ensure you are not being taken advantage of or bullied by the land agents. As nice as some of them can be, they are looking to get the most for the pipeline company to make it so that they can do pretty much anything they want on your land.
The Property Rights and Pipeline Center worked with the Niskanen Center to come up with a list of lawyers in the US who do work on pipeline issues and eminent domain issues. Many of these lawyers can work in any state by partnering with a local lawyer so don't worry if your state is not represented. All of the lawyers here will hold a free initial consultation and many are paid on a contingency basis (meaning they get paid from the additional money granted in an easement agreement.) Many of the lawyers here will also take cases where a landowner does not want to negotiate an easement at all.
Generally speaking - eminent domain attorneys work, like personal injury attorneys, on a contingency fee. I.e. they take a cut or percentage of the final settlement, so they are incentivized to get you the most money possible. Most often they will start work for free.
An eminent domain lawyer specializes in this area and knows all of the nuances. It is common that they will only ask to be paid a percentage of the amount above the best offer from the pipeline company so you may wish to hold off on signing an engagement letter until you have received what you think is the “best offer” from the developer.
But this does not mean you should wait. Start interviewing attorneys right away and check references. PRPC has worked with the Niskanen Center to come up with a list of eminent domain attorneys. You can find the list, and hints on hiring a lawyer, under RESOURCES on this website.
If you have no intention of settling and will go all the way to court, make sure you choose a lawyer who understands your wishes and who will honor that. Many lawyers will often take on groups of landowners at the same time which can be a powerful way to ensure your community has equal representation. Just be sure that the lawyer you choose is going to work for your interests.
There are no set standards on how pipeline companies write their easement offers. They are ALL different. They are often wordy, complicated, and structured to benefit the pipeline company above all. A land agent who is working on behalf of the pipeline company will tell you anything to get you to sign an easement, often lying, pressuring homeowners and generally wearing you out. Remember they work FOR the pipeline company and their job is to get you to sign as quickly as possible so you don’t have time to talk with other landowners or get a lawyer involved. In short, the faster they can get you to sign, the better deal they get and the more you give away. Your lawyer will find things in your easement offer that you wouldn’t know to look for and help you get the best possible outcome for you and your family.
Before signing an easement, you have the right to:
1) wait until the FERC issues an EA (Environmental Assessment) or EIS (Environmental Impact Statement)
2) review and comment on the EA or EIS
3) review the FERC Conditional Approval for conditions that may alter the pipeline operator’s preferred/applied for route and therefore may alter terms of your proposed easement.
Do not allow yourself to be pressured into signing an easement contract before you are ready and before all your questions have been answered in writing. Once an easement is granted, it is highly unlikely that you will be able to change or add terms or conditions.
This is an excellent way to build a strong coalition and to help landowners with a standard easement agreement that one eminent domain lawyer can develop for the group and modify for individual concerns. Easement Action Teams can be effective in building solidarity and understanding among landowners and keep consistent and open communications available throughout the duration of the experience. These are lawyers who have years of eminent domain experience in court cases at all levels of the government, including the Supreme Court. They have seen thousands of easement offers and are able to create an affordable service by engaging with multiple landowners. You will also have the option to hire them as your personal attorney should you choose. While this was not an option for us on the ACP, I have learned about it first hand from landowners on both the KxL and the Jordan Cove pipeline project and feel that this is an excellent choice at this time.
Something to be aware of is eminent domain lawyers flocking like seagulls to get groups of landowners to sign with them. I have found through talking to many landowners on pipeline projects around the United States, that many eminent domain lawyers were simply in it to "negotiate," and get their share of the pie. Be aware of lawyers like this. PRPC has worked hard to develop a trusted lawyers network that we can share with you.
Contact a lawyer to help form an Easement Action Team in your area. They will come out and meet with your group, answer questions and explain the entire process. It’s a great opportunity for as many landowners as possible to attend this meeting, ask questions, and make clear your desires for how you want to move forward individually. If you do not intend to sign an easement, let that be known. If your group decides to hire the attorney, fees will be discussed. There is an effort in progress to include everyone regardless of their economic status.