An eminent domain team with decades of experience negotiating and litigating with condemning authorities to ensure their clients receive fair treatment and full compensation.
Property rights are among the most fundamental and significant civil liberties protected by both state and federal constitutions. Designed to support community growth while protecting landowners, the premise is straightforward, the intent equitable. However, as with many statutes, the interpretation and execution vary widely from state to state.
“The government has to have the ability to take property, otherwise it would be nearly impossible to get anything done,” notes trial lawyer Menelaos “Manny” Papalas. “But just as important, that power needs to be exercised in a just manner with full compensation being paid. We believe the system in Florida, including the way attorneys are paid, allows for that level playing field to exist here, where it might not elsewhere.”
The “we” Manny Papalas refers to includes long-time associate and now partner, Chuck Griffith. Both men have specialized in the area of eminent domain throughout their careers and together established Papalas and Griffith PLLC earlier this year. By virtue of their impeccable reputations and the resulting steady flow of referrals, the firm has been a success since day one.
“Referrals are an essential part of our lifeline and we are both very appreciative of the many attorneys who continue to endorse us in this way,” says Griffith. “Of course, we always pay referral fees, which can be quite substantial.”
WHY EMINENT DOMAIN?
“I’m pretty confident that no one enters law school planning to become an eminent domain attorney,” Griffith’s wry smile mirrors his tone. “But, as soon as I was introduced, I knew it was a great fit for me.”
After his first semester of law school, prior to ever taking a single eminent domain course, Griffith had the opportunity to clerk for Papalas, already one of the most highly-respected attorneys in the field.
While he admits to being nervous during the interview, Griffith also experienced an immediate and powerful connection with the older attorney. Papalas’ recollection coincides with his partner’s.
“Chuck and I did have an easy rapport from the beginning,” says Papalas. “He was nervous about the interview yet had a great sense of humor. I was caught off guard by how earnest he was. It was obvious to me that he was a person who would give 100 percent effort. There were several outstanding applicants, but Chuck had the look of someone who didn’t just want the job, he wanted to grow that position into something more. He hasn’t disappointed me.”
“For the next two-and-a-half years our professional relationship continued to grow as I learned the ins and outs of his practice,” says Griffith. “By the time I passed the bar and was sworn in, I was really able to hit the ground running as an eminent domain lawyer.”
While Papalas’ passion lies in representing landowners, his initial introduction to the world of eminent domain was from the other side of the table. An associate with a large Jacksonville firm whose client was the City of Jacksonville, he and his colleagues were tasked with acquiring land through condemnation for the Better Jacksonville plan.
“Relatively quickly I realized that I could make more of a positive impact on peoples’ lives if I switched to representing landowners and businesses having land taken,” he says. “Eminent domain is literally a ’bet the farm’ proposition for some of our clients. Representing landowners also meant that my compensation would no longer be tied to billable hours, but rather to how much of a benefit I brought to my clients. I found that kind of win-win proposition very appealing.”
A single father of a young son at the time, Papalas was striving to find a reasonable balance in his life, and this seemed an ideal solution.
Here again the partners seem to be in perfect accord. “What I love most about our practice is that as a firm, our business interests are completely aligned with our clients’ interests,” says Griffith. “For most of our clients the land being taken through eminent domain represents their most significant investment, both financially and often emotionally. So, the fact that our fees are measured by the benefits we can achieve for the client, rather than being tied to our time, creates a built-in trusting relationship that we really believe helps the judicial system function at a higher level for our clients in eminent domain cases.”
NEW TAKE ON AN ANCIENT CONCEPT
After working together for several years, the men decided to explore the possibilities of operating a firm built entirely on their own insights, experience and instincts.
“We really thought that a firm dedicated to eminent domain and related issues could do a better job for our clients,” says Papalas. “Chuck and I, along with our paralegal Renee Farrington, were already a ‘firm within a firm’, and going on our own just made sense. Everything we do is aimed at these particular cases and helping our clients. “Condemnation cases are different from the typical legal representation handled by our previous firm, and our clients have different needs. This just works better,” he adds.
“We’re very cognizant of how tricky it can be to maintain a healthy balance between work and personal lives,” says Griffith. “I think it’s something that definitely makes us unique. We work together on every case. In fact, when we meet with a client the first time we always assure them they aren’t getting just me or Manny but our whole team. Every client has significant and meaningful interactions with all three of us.”
The third member of this team is Renee Farrington. Having worked with Palapas and Griffith at their former firm, Farrington was eager to join them as they embarked on this new venture.
“It wasn’t something I really had to think about when Manny and Chuck asked me to join them,” she says with an engaging smile. “I have great respect for both of them and enjoyed working with them both. Actually, while of course I had heard of eminent domain before, it wasn’t until I began working with them and had the opportunity to get more involved that I really fully appreciated what a fascinating part of the law it really is.
“Coming here was one of the best decisions I’ve ever made,” she continues. “The atmosphere here is very laidback and friendly. Everyone has a role and we work as a team. They make me feel appreciated and they give me the freedom to use my brain. I feel like I’m continuing to grow with the new challenges and responsibilities I’ve been given. Feeling that I’m an important part of the team has given me motivation and determination to always be better.”
Another thing all three members of the Palapas & Griffith team agree on is how wonderful it is to work in a field of law that lends itself to unique and interesting cases as well as positive results for clients.
“I always challenge myself to really understand the subject property and why it works the way it does,” notes Papalas. “For example, we represented a gas station/convenience store that was having a strip of seemingly surplus property by the road taken. At first blush, FDOT’s appraisal and resulting offer seemed relatively fair, even though no severance damages were included in recommended compensation to my client. However, further onsite study revealed that large trucks needed this strip to deliver food and fuel. This was the only safe place for these trucks to park. Without it, the trucks would block fuel pumps, take up customer parking and generally prevent the site from functioning properly. We were ultimately able to make these issues part of the case, and to help the client get a recovery that fairly addressed the damages. Catching those types of things is very rewarding, as the taking lawsuit represents the one chance landowners have to be ‘made whole’ for the taking.”
Griffith agrees, emphasizing that, “Routinely, we find that it’s the takings that appear on the surface, the least harmful to landowners and business owners that require the highest level of representation. Having seasoned eminent domain counsel streamlines the process for the client. We are able to use our experience and our relationships with experts who have dealt with eminent domain to most efficiently navigate our cases and achieve positive results.”
The bottom line, as noted on their website: “Florida’s constitution guarantees ‘full compensation’ when your property is taken. We’ll make sure you get it.”