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Massachusetts SJC Expands Rights of Property Owners in Eminent Domain Cases

Posted on: May 26th, 2021

By: Marc Finkel

In a landmark ruling involving the rights of property owners under the Massachusetts “quick take” eminent domain statute (M.G.L. c. 79), the Supreme Judicial Court (“SJC”) recently determined that the “quick take” statute allows for a property owner to challenge the validity of the taking while also accepting a pro tanto (partial) payment from the government entity for the taking.  In the case, Abuzahara v. City of Cambridge, 486 Mass. 818 (2021), the City of Cambridge took Plaintiff’s property by eminent domain through exercise of M.G.L. c. 79.  This caused for the immediate transfer of ownership of the property from the property owner to the government entity without a prior determination of property valuation made by a court. 

M.G.L. c. 79 ordinarily requires either an offer of settlement or a pro tanto payment be made to the property owner within 60 days of the taking of the property by the government entity.  Under the statute, the property owner may also challenge the legal validity of the taking within three years from when the right to damages has vested.  Prior to the SJC’s decision in Abuzahra, it was not clear whether the aggrieved property owner could accept a pro tanto payment for the property and still simultaneously challenge the validity of the taking.

The City of Cambridge offered plaintiff in Abuzahra a pro tanto payment of $3,700,000.00 for property it took pursuant to M.G.L c. 79.  Plaintiff opted to challenge the lawfulness of the taking as permitted under the statute, and, also, made a demand for receipt of the pro tanto payment.  The City of Cambridge refused to turn over the pro tanto payment to plaintiff, and, instead, deposited the pro tanto payment amount in a separate savings account while the lawfulness of the taking was decided.  Ultimately, the SJC found that plaintiff was entitled to both the pro tanto payment from the City of Cambridge while also maintaining the right to challenge the taking in the Trial Court where such simultaneous rights are not expressly prohibited by the “quick take” statute.  

The SJC noted in its decision the importance that eminent domain statutes be strictly construed to protect an individual’s property rights.  Accordingly, by permitting a plaintiff to recover a pro tanto payment while simultaneously allowing a plaintiff to challenge the legality of the taking, the SJC found that the legislative purpose of M.G.L. c. 79 is met.  Specifically, as discussed by the SJC, “the statutorily mandated pro tanto payment ensures that property owners receive some initial recourse following the deprivation of their property, and also incentivizes taking authorities to exercise their significant eminent domain powers with discretion.”  Id.   

Abuzahra is a significant decision that strengthens the rights of property owners as contemplated by M.G.L. c. 79.  As this decision required the SJC to undertake its role in interpreting statutes and resolving ambiguities, it will be interesting to follow what, if anything, the Massachusetts Legislature does with the statutory framework of M.G.L. c. 79 in light of Abuzahra.   

If you have any questions or would like more information, please contact Marc Finkel at [email protected].

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