Does a private pipeline company have the right to file a lawsuit to take private property to build a gas pipeline?

Under the Natural Gas Act, a pipeline company can apply to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) for a Certificate of Public Convenience and Necessity. If FERC issues the Certificate of Public Convenience and Necessity and the pipeline company meets many other conditions, it can obtain the power take private property.

If a lawsuit is filed to take my property, how do I know I have been sued and how do I get a copy of the complaint?

To take property using the power of eminent domain, a pipeline company must first file a lawsuit with the court and serve the complaint upon each defendant, including the property owner. After the complaint is filed with the court, a process server (usually a private company) must “serve” the complaint by handing the complaint to the defendant or someone who lives at the home where the defendant resides. The court rules allow for other means of service (i.e., publication), but this is the standard manner for service.

If I get served with a complaint, what are my options?

The three main options are:

  1. Answer the complaint and object to the taking;
  2. Decide not to file an answer and just participate in the valuation part of the case; and,
  3. Do nothing and allow the pipeline company to win by default.

If you answer, the answer must be timely and complete.

When the complaint is served, you should receive a “summons” and “notice of condemnation” that has a deadline to answer the complaint. Generally, you have 21 days from the date of service to file an answer or objection to the taking. The answer must:

  1. Identify the property in which the defendant claims an interest;
  2. State the nature and extent of the interest; and,
  3. State all the defendant’s objections and defenses to the taking.

If you do not answer, you can still participate at the trial or hearing on compensation and may present evidence on the amount of compensation to be paid. However, all other defenses will be waived if no answer is filed.

If you do absolutely nothing and do not appear at the trial or hearing to determine the amount of just compensation to be paid, you will most likely have your property taken and be paid the amount referenced in the complaint (i.e. the valued determined by the pipeline’s appraiser). In short, the pipeline company takes your property by default.

Do I need a lawyer to defend?

Individuals are not required to have a lawyer represent them. However, the process to defend an eminent domain case can be challenging. Some courts have sample pro se answers and limited instruction. See the United States Courts website for more.