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Honoring Dixon’s Legacy: With Each Victory, Condemnation Practice Pays Tribute to Legendary Partner

“Dixon would always say, ‘Let’s go have some fun’ when we’d go to trial,” Murphy remembered. “And we really did.”

How do you prove the government made a multimillion-dollar mistake? By knowing more than the experts testifying on the government’s behalf.

In a recent eminent domain case, V&E Condemnation partners George Murphy and David Wall forced a witness for the Texas Department of Transportation to concede that when appraising a property, he had compared it to real estate sales he knew little about. Those sales, the V&E team discovered, included foreclosures and liquidations — questionable indicators of market value. The court eventually ruled in favor of V&E’s client, Beeson Sirota, awarding the company $8.35 million (after attorney’s fees), which was some $3.5 million more than the government had originally offered.

“We knew a lot more about the appraiser’s data than he did. When we got into the details, it didn’t support the government’s case in any way,” Murphy said. It was one in a string of recent victories, he added, that would have made Dixon Montague proud. “We relentlessly prepared as he would have, as he taught us, and as he would expect us to do.”

Montague, a renowned eminent domain attorney, died August 19, 2018, at age 66, after a long battle with brain cancer. He had led V&E’s Condemnation practice group for 30 years before retiring in 2017. During his tenure, Montague had amassed an extensive record of victories while mentoring the next generation of V&E Condemnation lawyers.

“Dixon had a larger than life personality and presence,” said V&E Chairman Mark Kelly. “V&E is a better law firm today thanks to Dixon. He leaves us with a superb group of talented condemnation lawyers.”

Today’s Condemnation group — which includes Murphy and Wall as well as fellow partners Billy Coe Dyer and Don Griffin — has notched five wins in court, with jury verdicts well above the government’s original estimates.

The partners feel it is both their honor and their duty to carry on Montague’s winning legacy.

“We’re proud of our results and we’re proud of each other,” Dyer said. “It’s a tribute to Dixon, because I think he had a great eye for talent and a great eye for good people.” And those people, Dyer said, learned from the best.

Vinson and Elksin Condemnation Eminent Domain

From left to right: Managing Partner Scott N. Wulfe, Chairman T. Mark Kelly, Chief Talent Officer Patty Harris and Dixon Montague

 

‘Steel Sharpens Iron’

Condemnation is the process by which governments exercise their eminent domain authority to acquire private property. In the law, it is a practice area distinct from others in part because of how often disputes head to trial. Though settlements are also common, in many cases state and federal government officials are confident enough in their cases to believe their original offers will stand up in court. It is up to smart, skilled condemnation attorneys to prove that their clients are entitled to much more.

Doing so successfully means convincing a jury of the merits of your case — something Montague could do better than anyone … and he loved doing it. “Dixon would always say, ‘Let’s go have some fun’ when we’d go to trial,” Murphy remembered. “And we really did.”

Colleagues say Montague had a natural charm and a keen sense of humor that worked in his favor in the courtroom, but he was also driven by a genuine desire to help his clients, who were often small family businesses. He sought for them to be treated fairly and to receive what they were entitled to under both the U.S. and Texas constitutions. Montague’s dedication to his clients and the law manifested itself in the riveting arguments he made in court.

“Watching him in closing arguments talk about the Constitution, that’ll make a jury want to give that guy whatever he’s asking for,” Wall said. “Every single time you talk to the jurors after these cases, they all talked about how impressive Dixon was.”

Montague was also a gifted storyteller with a talent for showmanship. One of his favorite techniques? Demonstrative exhibits — a type of exhibit that changes shape before a juror’s eyes.

Dyer recalled how Montague cross-examined a state appraiser in a case where the appraiser had made a number of mistakes. Instead of simply informing the jury of the mistakes, Montague and his team created a large board with illustrations and information from the appraiser’s report. During the appraiser’s testimony, Montague would ask the man about each piece of information. Then, once the man admitted a mistake, Montague removed the errant information, which had been secured to the board with Velcro, from the exhibit. Each time Montague removed a piece, it left a hole in the board. He did it about six times.

“It made a screeching sound as Velcro does when you remove something from it,” Dyer remembered.  “By the end of the examination, Dixon held up this 40 inch by 30 inch board that had six big holes in it. He looked through the holes at the witness with the jury viewing from the side, and he said, ‘Mr. Appraiser, there are so many holes in your appraisal report it looks more like Swiss cheese.’ It had a big impact on the jury.”

In the other four recent court cases where V&E Condemnation partners secured victory, juries awarded their clients 100 percent of what they’d asked for.

In post-trial questionnaires, jurors would praise Montague and his partners as “very smart” attorneys who “left no stone unturned.” At least one juror continued to remember Montague fondly for years after a trial. Wall and Dyer recalled a day they were leaving the office with Montague when a stranger approached them on the street.

“He stopped Billy and Dixon and said, ‘You’re the lawyers from that condemnation case!'” Wall said. “He had been on a jury on a case they tried about eight or ten years before that, and he was going on and on, detailing specifics of the things that Dixon did in a courtroom a decade earlier, talking about how great he was.”

But as much as Montague impressed jurors, he may have impressed judges even more.

“He was so smart that he even challenged judges’ thoughts on various motions and rulings,” Dyer said. “As one judge told me, ‘Steel sharpens iron, and when Dixon Montague was in front of me, he made me a better judge.'”

What Dixon Would Expect

Montague made everyone around him sharper, but perhaps no one reaped the benefits of his skill and expertise more than the partners he worked with every day. He exhaustively researched each case to be prepared for surprises from the opposing side, and he expected the attorneys he worked with to do the same.

“You realized after working with him that a big part of it was being prepared — knowing the case better than everybody else, knowing every single fact about the case,” Wall said. “It was contagious because you saw Dixon doing it and the results he got, and thought to yourself, ‘Okay, I want to emulate that.'”

The example Montague set with his intense level of preparation and deft showmanship is reflected in the way V&E Condemnation partners handle cases today. Dyer recalled how, in a case last year, he and Murphy argued that a property being condemned in Oak Ridge North, Texas, could have been home to a Walmart Supercenter. The Texas government countered that Walmart would never build on the site because traffic in the area was too sparse. An average 35,000 cars passed by the property each day.

To support the government’s claim, an appraiser produced a report of Walmart Supercenters within 10 miles of the property, all located in highly trafficked areas. But as Dyer and Murphy pored over the appraiser’s report and did their own research, they realized he had missed a few stores, including one that was just three miles away from the property. That particular store was on a road that saw an average of just 29,000 cars pass by each day — less than the Oak Ridge Northproperty. To add insult to injury, Dyer and Murphy discovered that the real estate brokerage firm affiliated with the appraiser had been advertising the site as a prospective home for Walmart.

“His own firm was marketing it to the world as a Walmart Supercenter, while he contended that a Walmart Supercenter would never be on a site with such a low traffic count,” Dyer said. At trial, Dyer and Murphy presented jurors with an aerial photo of the Oak Ridge North site and the surrounding area. They pointed out all the Walmarts the appraiser had missed in the study, including the one with the low traffic count.

“The jurors told us afterward it was the most embarrassing moment in the trial,” Dyer said. But while the government was left red-faced, V&E’s client was thrilled. The jury awarded the client nearly three times the state’s original offer, about 85 percent of what the client had originally asked.

In the other four recent court cases where V&E Condemnation partners secured victory, juries awarded their clients 100 percent of what they’d asked for.

As much as they miss their mentor and friend, V&E Condemnation team members say their results are proof that they have successfully combined what Montague taught them with their own talents and abilities. “We put in the hard work, we have the understanding of the legal issues, and we’re connecting with juries,” Wall said.

As they forge ahead, the Condemnation partners say they will continue honoring Montague’s memory with every case.

“We make sure we’re doing a great job,” Murphy said, “because we know Dixon would expect that of us every time.”