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Prince v. Arkansas State Highway Commission

Supreme Court of Arkansas

June 6, 2019

Austin PRINCE, Willie Reinhardt, Mary E. Lowman, Deborah Brown, Kevin Steeland, Phyllis Stinson, Thomas Lowman, and Richard Smith, Appellants
v.
ARKANSAS STATE HIGHWAY COMMISSION; Arkansas Department of Transportation; and Scott E. Bennett, in His Official Capacity as Director of the Arkansas Department of Transportation, Appellees

Page 2

          APPEAL FROM THE PULASKI COUNTY CIRCUIT COURT, SECOND DIVISION [NO. 60CV-18-345], HONORABLE CHRISTOPHER CHARLES PIAZZA JUDGE

         Gill Ragon Owen, P.A., Little Rock, by: John P. Gill and Mitchell S. Dennis; and Robert Keller Jackson, PLLC, Little Rock, by: Robert K. Jackson, for appellants.

         Leslie Rutledge, Att’y Gen., by: William C. Bird III and Brittany N. Edwards, Ass’t Att’ys Gen., for appellee.

         OPINION

         ROBIN F. WYNNE, Associate Justice

          Appellants Austin Prince, Willie Reinhardt, Mary E. Lowman, Deborah Brown, Kevin Steeland, Phyllis Stinson, Thomas Lowman, and Richard Smith appeal from an order of the Pulaski County Circuit Court granting a motion to dismiss filed by the Arkansas State Highway Commission; the Arkansas Department of Transportation; and Scott E. Bennett, in his official capacity as director of the Arkansas Department of Transportation. We affirm.

          The Arkansas State Highway Department determined that a new bridge was needed on Highway 79 to span the White River at Clarendon as part of a realignment and expansion of the highway. Because Highway 79 runs through federal land at that location, the Department was required to obtain an easement from the federal government. To that end, the Department entered into an agreement with the United States Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS). Under the agreement, the Department would cede fifty acres of property to USFWS in exchange for a 49.69-acre easement over land in the Cache River and White River Wildlife Refuges. The Department also agreed to convey ninety-seven acres of land in Monroe County to USFWS to mitigate for the loss of habitat quantity and quality caused by the realignment and expansion of Highway 79. The agreement further required the Department to demolish three bridges, one of which is the old Clarendon bridge, remove all bridge structures, restore the natural topography, and reestablish native hardwood vegetation. To comply with this provision of the agreement, the Department planned to invite bids and enter into a contract with the winning bidder on the bridge-demolition project, with an estimated cost of $ 10.8 million.

         Appellants filed a motion for preliminary injunction and complaint for declaratory and injunctive relief alleging that the contract between the Department and USFWS is void because it is unconscionable,

Page 3

entered into under duress, and constitutes a windfall to USFWS. They also alleged that there exists a mutual mistake of fact regarding the necessity of removing the old Clarendon bridge. Appellants contended in the complaint that, because the contract is void, the monetary expenditures constitute an illegal exaction, for which suit is permitted under article 16, § 13 of the Arkansas Constitution. In the complaint, appellants requested a permanent injunction restricting the Department from demolition activities for the old Clarendon bridge as well as reasonable attorney’s fees, costs, and expenses.

         Appellees moved to dismiss the complaint on the following grounds: (1) the complaint is barred by sovereign immunity; (2) appellants lack standing to challenge the agreements; (3) the complaint fails to state a claim for which relief may be granted; and (4) appellants failed to join an indispensable party (USFWS). Appellees also contested the motion for a preliminary injunction, contending that it was barred by sovereign immunity and failed to satisfy the requirements of Arkansas Rule of Civil Procedure 65 (2017). The circuit court granted the preliminary injunction with the stated goal of giving the parties time to explore settlement. The parties were unable to settle, and the circuit court entered an order granting the motion to dismiss on all four grounds asserted by appellees. This appeal followed.[1]

          Appellants appeal from the grant of a motion to dismiss. In reviewing a trial court’s decision on a motion to dismiss under Ark. R. Civ. P. 12(b)(6), we treat the facts alleged in the complaint as true and view them in the light most favorable to the party who filed the complaint. Goforth v. Smith, 338 Ark. 65, 991 S.W.2d 579 (1999). In testing the sufficiency of the complaint on a motion to dismiss, all reasonable inferences must be resolved in favor of the complaint, and pleadings are to be liberally construed. Hames v. Cravens, 332 Ark. 437, 442, 966 S.W.2d 244, 247 (1998). However, our rules require fact pleading. A complaint must state facts, not mere conclusions, in order to entitle the pleader to relief. Brown v. Tucker, 330 Ark. 435, 438, 954 S.W.2d 262, 264 (1997); Ark. R. Civ. P. 8(a)(1) (2017).

         Appellants’ sole claim in their complaint is that the agreement between the Department and USFWS constitutes an illegal exaction. Article 16, § 13 of the Arkansas Constitution provides: "Any citizen of any county, city or town may institute suit, in behalf of himself and all others interested, to protect the inhabitants thereof against the enforcement of any illegal exactions whatsoever." This court has held that such a suit is not barred by the constitution’s sovereign-immunity provision, article 5, § 20, because article 16, § 13, as a more specific provision, controls over the more general prohibition in article 5, § 20.[2] McGhee v. Ark. State Bd. of Collection Agencies, 360 Ark. 363, 201 S.W.3d 375 (2005); Carson v. Weiss, 333 Ark. 561, 972 S.W.2d 933 (1998); Streight v. Ragland, 280 Ark. 206, 209-10 n. 7, 655 S.W.2d 459, 461 n. 7 (1983).

          Clearly, citizens are constitutionally permitted to sue the state for an illegal exaction. The question before us in this ...


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