Capital Press

A federal appellate court has barred a California farm company from seeking $5.5 million in compensation for an allegedly fraudulent Santa Barbara County wetland designation.

On May 14, the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that Adam Bros. Farming Inc. can't sue the county in federal court because the matter has already been decided by state courts in California.

Adam Bros. has been engaged in a decade-long legal battle with Santa Barbara County over the wetland designation, which prevented the company from farming roughly one-third of its land for several years.

The farm company bought about 270 acres near Santa Maria, Calif., in 1997, only to discover that about 95 acres had previously been designated a wetland by Santa Barbara County.

In 2000, the company challenged a "stop work" order that prohibited the area from being farmed without a permit.

Adam Bros. filed a legal complaint alleging the wetland designation was fraudulent because it wasn't based on hydrological and soil tests, as required.

Four years later, a jury awarded the company $5.5 million for lost profits and reduced property value, with the wetland designation later getting thrown out by a state judge.

The decision to invalidate the wetland designation was upheld by an appeals court in California in 2008, but the jury award was overturned because Adam Bros. bought the property after the designation had been made.

The farm company then filed suit against Santa Barbara County in federal court, alleging that its property had been taken without just compensation in violation of the U.S. Constitution.

A federal judge dismissed the lawsuit, ruling the case wasn't legally "ripe" for federal court because Adam Bros. hadn't pursued damages in California state court through a process known as "inverse condemnation."

The government is typically the plaintiff during condemnation proceedings to take private property. When the property owner files a lawsuit to challenge the taking, the process is called "inverse condemnation."

An attorney for Adam Bros. argued the plaintiffs didn't have to initiate "inverse condemnation" for the case to become ripe for federal court, since it had been litigated in state court so extensively.

Oral arguments in the federal appeal focused on the question of ripeness, but that didn't turn out to be a central factor in the 9th Circuit's decision.

The three-judge appellate panel basically set aside the ripeness issue, ruling that Adam Bros. was barred from filing the lawsuit in federal court on other grounds.

The judges found that Adam Bros. was basically trying to re-litigate the same case it had already lost in state court, which isn't allowed because the federal court is not an "appellate tribunal for state proceedings."

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