A short one from the Maine Supreme Judicial Court. In Pinkham v. Dep't of Transportation, No. 2016 ME 74 (May 19, 2016), the court held that portions of the DOT's appraiser's report which appraised other properties being taken as part of the same project were not confidential or privileged under the state's public records laws.
The DOT was taking the property of Pinkham and others. It generated an appraisal report which included Pinkham's property, and that of others. The DOT produced those parts of the report applicable to Pinkham, but claimed the parts about the other properties were "confidential" and subject to privilege, relying on a statute which provides that certain DOT records are confidential and "may not be disclosed." The trial court agreed.
The Supreme Court reversed. Confidentiality under the state's public records laws is not discovery in an eminent domain case. This is the "closed universe of litigation" (keep that one in your quote banks, folks). Slip op. at 9. Liberal discovery, and all that. Discovery may not be limitless, but the information in the other parts of the DOT appraisal report certainly was relevant, since the appraiser used the comparable sales approach,
None of the comparables used by Moniz when appraising Pinkham’s property was a property whose value was affected by the sale of a seventeen-foot-wide or similar sized strip of road frontage. The MDOT’s appraisal relied instead on the sales prices of undeveloped parcels of land along Route 1A that were not involved in the widening project. Whether Moniz used the comparable sales method in assessing the other properties affected by this project, and whether the comparables Moniz used for Pinkham’s property were the same ones he used for the rest of the project is not known; Pinkham was precluded from reviewing those portions of Moniz’s report that contained information about the methods he used or the results he reached when appraising all of the other properties along Route 1A from which the MDOT took strips of land as part of the same widening project.
Slip op. at 14. The court acknowledged that each parcel is unique, but that the information in the report about other properties was relevant for discovery purposes.
The court also noted, "[h]ere, the MDOT is not attempting to use [the statute] to avoid a competitive disadvantage, as section 63 contemplates; the negotiations between the MDOT and Pinkham have long since concluded. Rather, MDOT seeks the protection of section 63 to obtain a trial advantage in denying Pinkham the information that would allow him to effectively challenge the MDOT's calculation of Pinkham's property value." Slip op. at 16.
A big no-no in the court's view. Vacated and remanded.