The Arkansas Supreme Court on Thursday dismissed an appeal from the city of Little Rock over an eminent domain award exceeding $500,000, saying the city failed to follow the rules on providing a $1,500 transcript from the trial.
Through eminent domain, Little Rock authorities paid $78,575 in September 2010 for land near the Big Rock Interchange, where Interstates 430 and 630 meet. The landowners sued and were awarded $510,675, plus interest, in May 2015 in Pulaski County Circuit Court.
The city appealed the May ruling and then requested several extensions from the lower court, asking for more time to file the record with the appeals court.
Attorneys for the Hermitage Development Corp., LVW Associates partnership and other individuals argued that the city failed to meet the timetables set in Arkansas appellate procedure and that the high court should dismiss the city's appeal of the eminent domain case.
On Thursday, the court did so, writing the city of Little Rock failed to pay on time the $1,500 due a court stenographer and, because of this, the city's appeal was void because it was not properly filed.
Attorneys representing the property owners in the case declined to comment on the ruling.
Little Rock City Attorney Tom Carpenter emailed fellow city officials late Thursday afternoon to inform them of the ruling. In the message, he described the failure to pay a court reporter sooner as the result of an "unusual delay."
"Essentially, the City got an invoice in this office on July 1, and immediately got into the process. But there were certain delays," Carpenter wrote. "On appeal, though, the Arkansas Supreme Court ruled that failure to pay in full -- not simply make partial payments or arrangements for payments -- meant the appeal was moot and would not be considered. This is certainly an extraordinary opinion of the Court."
Reached by phone, Carpenter said that the payment in question was caught among several elements of the city bureaucracy and that it didn't seem right that city taxpayers could be on the hook for a judgment because "the [Supreme] Court decided to change rules midstream."
"This is going to change how we do things," Carpenter said.
Carpenter said Thursday that his office is considering its legal options and whether or not the city will file a petition for a rehearing.
In the eminent domain case, the city took two parcels of land -- sections totaling 1,164 square feet and 119 square feet -- at 11219 Financial Centre Parkway. The city paid the owners $78,575 for the "fair-market" value of the land as required by state law, according to court records.
Subsequent construction led the landowners to complain that the construction led to changes in a turn lane and driveway on their property that negatively impacted their business, according to court records.
In April 2015, a jury sided with property owners that the city's actions hurt their business and awarded $589,250. In May, Circuit Judge Alice Gray subtracted the amount already paid and set the amount at $510,675, with a 6 percent annual interest rate going back to the September 2010 seizure.
In June, the city filed its notice of appeal. On July 1, a Pulaski County Circuit Court reporter sent Little Rock attorneys a $1,500 invoice for the cost of making transcripts from the case, according to court filings.
According to court records, the court reporter made several attempts to get the money. The city cited bureaucratic issues in its failure to pay the reporter, but court records show the city was able to pay for a transcript in the appeal of a different case.
On Sept. 1, city attorneys asked the lower court for more time to complete the court record, saying that "among other things," the size of the record and the schedule of the court reporter prevented it from being done on time.
On Sept. 9, the lower court judge denied the motion, finding that the city didn't show that it had ordered a copy of the court record on time and also that the city hadn't paid on time the $1,500 necessary to the court reporter to complete a copy of the record.
City attorneys filed for another emergency extension Sept. 10, and a judge signed off on a two-month extension on the condition that the city pay the court reporter that day, which it did.
The property owners' attorneys filed a motion with the Arkansas Supreme Court in early October, arguing the circuit court judge erred by granting an extension. They claimed the appeal should be dismissed because it didn't follow the timelines set in court procedures.
City attorneys fought the motion, arguing they made "diligent efforts" to pay the court reporter before making a motion for a time extension. They also argued the extension was necessary because the transcription of the case couldn't be completed until the court reporter was paid.
Citing an earlier ruling, Thursday's order stated that "'any financial arrangements required' means actually making the payment required for the preparation of the transcript, not merely making promises to pay or even diligent efforts to pay."
"The record clearly shows that the City failed to make the financial arrangements necessary for the court reporter to prepare the stenographically recorded material; it is undisputed that the City did not remit the required deposit until the very last day that an extension could be granted," the court wrote. "It would make little sense to hold that an extension was necessary for the court reporter to include the stenographically reported material in the record when the City was at fault in creating the necessity by failing to pay the court reporter the required deposit."
Metro on 12/04/2015