DeCoster v. Waushara County Highway Department

Waushara County wanted to improve a rural highway. A dispute erupted about who owned land on which DeCoster had erected a fence. State court litigation settled for a $7,900 payment to DeCoster, who then sought more than $110,000 in attorneys’ fees and other expenses. The court of appeals affirmed an award of about $31,000, ruling that any outlay after the $7,900 offer was unreasonable. DeCoster then sued in federal court, seeking an award under 42 U.S.C. 4651–55, the Uniform Relocation Assistance and Real Property Acquisition Act, which conditions federal grants for highway projects on states’ providing assurance that they will compensate affected landowners for reasonable attorney, appraisal, and engineering fees. The district court ruled that the Act does not provide a private right of action. The Seventh Circuit affirmed, without deciding the merits. DeCoster had to present his claim in the state suit. Wisconsin employs the doctrine of claim preclusion under which all legal theories, pertaining to a single transaction, that could have been presented in the initial suit, are barred if not so presented. It does not matter whether the “transaction” is identified as the (arguable) taking of DeCoster’s land or his litigation expenses; the federal suit rests on a transaction that was before the state court. In addition, both Wis. Stat. 32.28 and the Act call for reimbursement of “reasonable” litigation expenses. Wisconsin’s judiciary determined that an award exceeding $31,561 would be unreasonable. View "DeCoster v. Waushara County Highway Department" on Justia Law