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Contractor Claims Property Rights in Roosevelt’s Tree

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Looks Great Services (LGS), a tree removal company, brought legal action against the National Park Service (NPS) for breach of contract and taking of property without just compensation violating the Fifth Amendment. The contract dispute arose from a contract made by an agreement for Looks Great Services to remove a tree at the Sagamore Hill National Historic Site in Oyster Bay, New York.

Procedural History

Sagamore Hill was President Theodore Roosevelt's home from 1885 until his death in 1919.  It also served as the Summer White House during his time as President.  President Roosevelt took great pleasure in the landscape there and planted numerous trees including a giant copper beech tree that he planted at the estate in the 1890s. The tree began showing signs of disease and began dying. LGS won a bid to remove the rotten tree for $0.01 to cut and remove the diseased Copper Beech tree and dispose of all debris.

LGS explained it proposed removing the tree for only one cent because of the historic and communal value the tree held. On March 28, 2019, LGS was notified it could not proceed with the removal of the tree because of “concerns that the National Park Service has with disposition of the tree materials.” LGS then explained it agreed to do the job at a low cost because it planned to resell the wood for profit. In June 2019, LGS alleged that the National Park Service made an agreement with a third party to remove the tree and the removal had commenced. LGS filed a complaint asking the Court to enjoin the National Park Service from allowing the third party to remove and retain the tree. It’s second count alleged the National Park Service has taken the tree from LGS without just compensation. The National Park Service moved to dismiss both counts.

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Judicial Findings

The United States Court of Federal Claims (COFC) held that injunctive relief was not available to LGS. The COFC noted it is a court of limited jurisdiction and may only award equitable relief in few statutorily described circumstances. This includes claims against the United States generally, or in cases where the “claim for equitable relief is related to a claim for monetary relief pending before this court.” The court stated that a contractor’s challenge to a government’s contract administration is not a bid protest. Once LGS was awarded the contract, it was no longer an “interested party” with standing to bring a bid protest claim against the United States. The COFC concluded LGS misunderstood the National Park Service’s termination of its contract as a bid protest action instead of a contract claim under the Contract Disputes Act (CDA).

The COFC held LGS’ claim for breach of contract was not ripe. It stated that breach of contract claims ripen after a claim is presented to and denied in a final decision by a contracting officer. The Federal Circuit has held the final decision of a contracting officer is required to file an appeal with the Court. The COFC asserts neither of these steps were taken by LGS, allowing the court to dismiss Count I of LGS’s complaint.

For LGS to survive a motion to dismiss for failure to state a claim, the Court must view all the facts in the light most favorable to LGS and conclude “the plaintiff pleads factual content that allows the court to draw the reasonable inference that the defendant is liable for the misconduct alleged.” This requires LGS to plead enough facts accepted as true to demonstrate it had a property interest in the beech tree. The Court however stated LGS did not plead sufficient facts to show it possessed a “legally cognizable Fifth Amendment property interest in the beech tree.”

The COFC also addressed whether LGS's right had been taken if it would have had a property right. The Court noted that if a property right taken would be a contractual right, not a separate existing property interest. The plaintiff’s remedy would be in contract, not a taking claim to recover contract damages. LGS relied on the case, Barlow & Haun, Inc. v. United States, 87 Fed. Cl. 428 (2009), to show the Government took the value of a contract as well as the property vested in it. However, the Government argued the LGS’s taking argument was different in Barlow because it was unable to identify a property right that existed independent from its contract with the NPS. The Court agreed with Government’s contention that LGS alleged no facts to suggest its claims exist independently from its contract with the NPS. The Court stated that should LGS possess a property right, the right would not have been taken. The Court of Federal Claims stated LGS did not plead enough facts to demonstrate it had a legally cognizable Fifth Amendment property interest in the beech tree, leading it to dismiss Count 2 of its complaint.

For any information on this case or help to acquire a government contract, call Whitcomb Selinksy PC.

About the AuthorRaymundo Ribota

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