Drainage Impacted Landowners in the California Central Valley

Questions & Answers

  • What is this case about?
    • In this case, owners of farmlands in the Westlands Water District are seeking compensation from the United States for losses that they've suffered as a direct result of the United States' failure to provide drainage services. The accumulation of saline groundwater beneath the properties due to the lack of drainage has deprived landowners of productive use of their farmlands and has devalued their properties.
  • How is this different from the other lawsuits related to drainage that I've heard about?
    • This case, unlike prior cases, is filed in the United States Court of Federal Claims and alleges that by failing to provide the necessary drainage to District farmlands, the United States has unconstitutionally "taken" private property from District landowners without just compensation. The remedy is compensation to the individual property owners. This represents a different legal approach to addressing the drainage problem than previous lawsuits. In addition, unlike prior cases, this case has been filed as a class action. If the court certifies, or approves, the lawsuit as a class action, hundreds of landowners in the drainage-impaired area will be able to bring their claims at once. The named plaintiffs (in this case, Michael Etchegoinberry, Erik Clausen, Eric Barlow, and Todd Allen) would then become "class representatives" suing on behalf of the "class" of landowners in Westlands who have similar claims. In a class action, the court resolves the common issues for everyone in the class who chooses to participate in the case at the same time. Moreover, the class action allows landowners to join efforts to share the cost of the litigation and to increase the chances of success. Like all lawsuits, we make no guarantee, warranty, or prediction as to the outcome of this case.
  • What is currently happening in the case?
    • The litigation is currently on hold through a “stay” order issued by the Court at the request of the parties due to pending settlement negotiations that could lead to an out-of-court resolution of the case. Last Fall, we became aware of and involved in settlement discussions which seek to resolve all pending claims in our case and in Westlands Water District v. United States (U.S Court of Federal Claims, Case No. 12-12 C), the breach of contract case Westlands filed against the Government shortly after the Etchegoinberry takings lawsuit. The settlement negotiations also seek to address orders requiring the provision of drainage issued by the United States District Court in an earlier lawsuit, Firebaugh Canal Water District v. United States (U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of California, Case No. 1:88-cv-00634 LJO DLB).
  • What are the terms of the proposed settlement? Should I expect the proposed settlement to include monetary compensation for me?
    • In this case, owners of farmlands in the Westlands Water District are seeking compensation from the United States for losses that they've suffered as a direct result of the United States' failure to provide drainage services. The accumulation of saline groundwater beneath the properties due to the lack of drainage has deprived landowners of productive use of their farmlands and has devalued their properties.
  • Will I have any say in the settlement?
    • Individual putative class members will be able to make their own decisions with respect to any proposed settlement agreement.
  • What happened with the United States’ effort to dismiss the case?
    • The Court rejected it. In September 2013, the Honorable Judge Marian Blank Horn, who is presiding over the case, denied the Government’s motion to dismiss, which had been filed in December 2011. The Government had argued that the case should be dismissed because it was untimely and brought outside of the applicable 6-year statute of limitations for takings claims. After an oral argument and several rounds of supplemental briefing over a nearly two-year period, the Court denied the Government’s motion. The Court’s decision, explained in a 78-page opinion, allows the case to proceed to adjudication on the merits.
  • What happens if the case doesn’t settle?
    • Judge Horn’s decision denying the Government’s motion to dismiss allows the case to be adjudicated on its merits if a settlement is not reached.
  • How is this case different from the Westlands Water District case filed in the Court of Federal Claims in January 2012?
    • While both cases stem from the United States' failure to comply with its obligation to provide drainage to farmlands in the Westlands Water District, they've been brought by different plaintiffs asserting different claims. This case has been brought by landowners in Westlands as a class action and is based on the Government's taking of their properties without just compensation. The case filed by Westlands was filed on behalf of the water district and was based on breaches of the contracts between Westlands and the United States for water service.
  • I’ve read that the Westlands Water District’s breach of contract case was dismissed. How does that affect this case and why is that being considered in the settlement?
    • In January 2013, the breach of contract case filed by the Westlands Water District against the United States was dismissed. Because that case involves different plaintiffs and different claims, the dismissal of the District’s contract lawsuit is not determinative of the outcome in this class action takings lawsuit. The dismissal also does not terminate the case. In March 2013, Westlands noticed its appeal, which is pending in a federal appellate court (Westlands Water District v. United States, U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit, Case No. 2013-5069).
  • When can I begin to participate in this lawsuit?
    • Should settlement efforts progress, we plan to visit communities in the Westlands Water District to review and discuss the terms of settlement and decision points for putative class members. We encourage putative class members to attend any such meetings we schedule. Should we need to litigate the case, we would eventually ask the court to certify, or approve, this lawsuit as a class action. If the court certifies the lawsuit as a class action, we would separately provide notice of the lawsuit to all potential class members we can locate. The notice would include a timeline for joining the class action, as well as any other requirements for joining.
  • Who can participate in this lawsuit?
    • To be a part of this lawsuit, you must be a landowner of drainage-impaired farmlands in the Westlands Water District. Other criteria will also affect a landowner’s ability to participate.
  • Why should I participate in the lawsuit?
    • If our lawsuit settles or proceeds to litigation and is certified as a class action, your participation in the lawsuit as an "opt-in" class member will be very important. Not only would your involvement allow you to seek financial redress from the United States for its failure to provide drainage to your farmlands, it also would provide an efficient mechanism for the hundreds of affected landowners across the District to join together to do so. Moreover, only those affected landowners who take the affirmative step of "opting-in" would be able to share in any recovery that may result from this lawsuit. Otherwise, to get similar relief, an affected landowner would have to personally retain an attorney and file an individual lawsuit. There would also be financial disincentive to participating, since affected landowners are already funding the lawsuit through a special "Land-Based Charge for Drainage Service Area" being administered and collected by the District.
  • How can I participate in the lawsuit?
    • If this lawsuit settles or proceeds to litigation and is certified as a class action and you would like to become part of the class and are eligible to do so, you must "opt-in" to the class action. Unlike other class actions you may be familiar with in which affected individuals become part of a class unless they "opt-out," lawsuits like this against the United States for compensation require potential class members to take an affirmative step to join.
  • What happens if I participate in the lawsuit?
    • If our class is certified by the Court and you then elect to "opt-in" to the lawsuit and join the class action, you will designate the named plaintiffs (Michael Etchegoinberry, Erik Clausen, Eric Barlow, and Todd Allen) as your class representatives. You will be bound by the final judgment in the case, whether or not favorable to the class. As a class member, you will also have the opportunity to communicate to the court regarding any proposed settlement of the case before it is approved.
  • Will I have to pay anything for participating in the lawsuit, whether it settles or not?
    • Westlands Water District is currently administering and collecting a fee on landowners of drainage-impaired farmlands to fund this litigation. Landowners received initial notice of this "Land-Based Charges for the Drainage Service Area" assessment in the District's January 5, 2011 Notice, and additional notices have been provided since then. Each year the District collects an assessment for this litigation, affected landowners will receive notice and be able to provide comment to the District. There are no additional costs beyond this assessment.
  • What happens if I do nothing?
    • If the lawsuit settles or proceeds to litigation and is certified as a class action and you are an eligible landowner of drainage-impaired farmland in Westlands who does not join the class action by opting-in, you will not be eligible to share in any financial recovery from this lawsuit (either through any potential settlement or judgment) related to the United States' failure to provide drainage to your farmlands. Nor will you able to request any refund of the special assessment collected by Westlands related to this litigation.
  • Is there anything else I can do to help?
    • Please let other affected Westlands landowners know about this lawsuit. In the coming months, if settlement efforts progress, the attorneys working on the case plan to visit towns in the Westlands to discuss the lawsuit and any answer questions you may have. We will also periodically update this website, which we invite you to check occasionally to keep apprised of the latest developments.