Opinion:Barnett v. Okay Public Works Authority, 2022 OK 24
Subject matter:Municipal Law; Inverse Condemnation
Date Decided:March 8, 2022
Trial Court:District Court of Wagoner County; Judge Kirkley
Route to this Court:Appeal of jury verdict in inverse condemnation suit; assigned to Court of Civil Appeals, Division III; Petition for Certiorari granted on April 26, 2021. 
Facts:OPWA is a public trust, pursuant to 60 O.S. 2021 §§ 176-180.4 that supplies utilities, including a sanitary system and a water treatment plant, for Okay, Oklahoma. The sanitary system services approximately 225 residences. In 2009, OPWA began a sanitary system improvement project with public funds obtained from the Oklahoma Water Resources Board. This project included the replacement and relocation of wastewater sewer lines and the extension of lines from the water treatment plant.

OPWA expanded the sanitary system improvement project from adjacent land onto the River Valley Mobile Home Community owned by Appellee Vicky Barnett. OPWA began excavating on the premises of River Valley without obtaining permission from Barnett or giving notice. OPWA’s engineer hired to design the sanitary system improvement project informed OPWA that a new easement was required for the portion of the project on the River Valley premises, but OPWA failed to obtain one.

The work performed by OPWA caused extensive damage to the River Valley premises near the excavation area. Further, during and upon completion of the project, sewage did not drain properly from the mobile homes. Barnett discovered the lines installed by OPWA had not been properly graded.

Barnett brought this action against OPWA alleging inverse condemnation for the property taken and damaged by OPWA. The district court held a jury trial, and the jury returned a verdict in favor of Barnett, awarding her $73,350 in damages for inverse condemnation. OPWA moved for judgment notwithstanding the verdict (JNOV) or, in the alternative, a new trial, arguing it did not possess the power of eminent domain over the installation of the wastewater sewer lines. The district court denied OPWA’s motion. The district court then entered a journal entry of judgment and granted OPWA an easement on the River Valley property. OPWA appealed.

COCA reversed the district court’s judgment, concluding that 60 O.S.Supp.2006, § 176(J) did not give OPWA the power of eminent domain over the subject project. COCA explained that a public trust has the authority to invoke eminent domain for the purposes of the “furnishing of water for domestic purposes” and concluded that this power does not extend to projects involving wastewater sewer lines. The Court granted certiorari.
Standard of Review:De novo for issue of statutory construction (60 O.S. Supp. 2006 § 176(J); standard of review for a motion for JNOv is identical to the standard for determining a motion for directed verdict; his Court considers as true all evidence favorable to the non-moving party together with all inferences that may be reasonably drawn, and we disregard all conflicting evidence favorable to the moving party. A district court should grant a motion for JNOV only when there is an entire absence of proof on a material issue. The Court will not disturb a judgment on appeal unless it is apparent that the district court erred on a pure question of law or acted arbitrarily. 
Analysis:Oklahoma’s statute regarding a public trust’s eminent domain power provides in pertinent part:J. Any public trust created pursuant to the provisions of this section shall have the power to acquire lands by use of eminent domain in the same manner and according to the procedures provided for in Sections 51 through 65 of Title 66 of the Oklahoma Statutes. Any exercise of the power of eminent domain by a public trust pursuant to the provisions of this section shall be limited to the furtherance of public purpose projects involving revenue-producing utility projects of which the public trust retains ownership; provided, for public trusts in which the State of Oklahoma is the beneficiary the exercise of the power of eminent domain may also be used for public purpose projects involving air transportation. Revenue-producing utility projects shall be limited to projects for the transportation, delivery, treatment or furnishing of water for domestic purposes or for power, including, but not limited to, the construction of lakes, pipelines and water treatment plants or for projects for rail transportation.The plain language of § 176(J) grants public trusts the power of eminent domain for public projects involving the “transportation, delivery, treatment, or furnishing” of one or two separate utilities, i.e., either “power” or “water for domestic purposes.”OPWA’s project involved the construction and installation of pipelines to ultimately transport and deliver wastewater from the River Valley premises and other adjoining premises to OPWA’s plant for treatment. Transporting, delivering, treating, and furnishing of water for domestic purposes includes not only the furnishing of water to a household but the transportation of used water from the household to treatment plants. OPWA’s project falls squarely within the plain language of § 176(J), which authorizes OPWA to exercise eminent domain over the sanitary system improvement project.Reliable water systems are important to state citizens. Furnishing utilities such as power and water for citizens is so “manifestly public ‘that it has seldom been questioned and never denied.'” We hold that the installation of wastewater sewer lines on the River Valley premises as part of the sanitary system project was for public use–to improve the system that transports, delivers, treats, and furnishes water for Okay, Oklahoma.
Outcome:District Court Affirmed; Court of Civil Appeals Opinion Vacated.
Vote:8-0; Concur: Darby, C.J., Kane, V.C.J., Kauger, Winchester (author), Edmondson, Gurich, Rowe, and Kuehn, JJ.Disqualified: Combs, J.
Other: Pending Motion for Appeal-related fees and costs is pending.