Texas landowners receive settlement from telecom companies

The SE Texas Record Nov. 29, 2014, 6:00pm

Some 60,000 present and past Texas landowners on some 3,200 miles of land stand to receive millions of dollars in cash and other benefits as a result of a class action settlement agreement with three of the nation's largest telecommunications companies.

In return, Sprint, Qwest and Level 3 Communications will be able to resolve difficult real estate problems and potential liability arising out of their installation of fiber-optic-cable networks in Texas without the consent of the landowners. 

The case is pending in the federal court in Beaumont where both sides have filed briefs and presented oral arguments requesting preliminary approval of the class settlement by U.S. District Judge Ron Clark.

The landowners' announcement of this settlement follows the recent U. S. Supreme Court's landmark decision in Marvin M. Brandt Revocable Trust, et al. v. United States, which defined the limits on permitted uses of railroad right-of-way easements.

According to the landowners' lawyers, the Texas settlement is an application of the Brandt Court's reasoning.

In Brandt, the Court explained that the "essential features of easements ... are well settled as a matter of property law," and "granting an easement merely gives the grantee the right to enter and use the grantor's land for a certain purpose."

The landowners' lawyers say the same analysis supports this settlement. All qualified landowners who file claims will be paid without regard to any railroad's claim that it owns broader rights than railroad use.

The settlement will end nearly 15 years of litigation over real estate rights and alleged trespass and unjust enrichment claims. It follows approval of similar settlements by federal courts in 40 other states.

Like the 40 other settlements, the Texas settlement terms require the defendant companies to pay farmers, ranchers, homeowners, businesses and other landowners for past use of the land and for future use of portions of the land that will be subject to limited easements that the companies will receive. Thus, the companies will benefit from removal of a threat to their ability to maintain their fiber-optic-cable networks in Texas.

Paul Drawhorn of Beaumont filed the class action in 1999 and is named as a class representative.

According to the lawyers, most of the nearly 15 years of delay were caused by procedural motions, appeals and other disputes in related cases across the nation.

But the lawyers are concerned that landowners are facing additional delays in Texas. Statistics compiled by the Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts show that the Eastern District of Texas federal court has the third heaviest caseload per judge of all 94 U.S. district courts. Also, two of the eight judgeship positions in the district are vacant.

The next step necessary for conclusion of the settlement will be for Judge Clark to issue an order of preliminary approval so that notices may be sent to the Texas landowners.

Any class members who wish to opt out of the settlement and retain their individual rights may do so.

Also, any class members who wish to do so may object and appear at a final fairness hearing to voice their concerns. After considering any additional filings or objections that may be made, the Court may grant final approval.

The plaintiffs are represented by attorneys from Ackerson Kauffman Fex in Washington, D.C.

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