Jim and Janet Ramsey

Spotlighting Bait-And-Switch Tactics

They walked a long and arduous path to justice, first for themselves, then for every Virginian.

– By Dennis Hartig

The state highway department told Jim and Janet Ramsey it had run out of time dickering. It needed to start building an interstate exit ramp next to their Virginia Beach home.

There would be no more negotiations on the value of their land. In 2009, it put aside in court the $248,000 determined by the government appraisal and took title to a strip of the  Ramsey  land. Jim and Janet would have to prove to a jury in court that their property at an interstate intersection was worth $150,000 more.

With the title in hand to the Ramsey land, the highway department swallowed a big bite of their side yard and began construction. The Ramseys withdrew the $248,000 and retained Waldo & Lyle attorneys Jeremy Hopkins and Brian Kunze. The highway department refused to negotiate and they exercised their right to go to court.

“All we wanted was to be treated fairly,” Jim said.

That is when the highway department started playing rough. It made Jim and Janet a Godfather-style offer, one they thought the Ramseys could not possibly refuse: Accept the $248,000 — and not a penny more — or we will re-appraise the property for a lot less.

The highway department squeezed the Ramseys knowing they were in a precarious financial position. They had already withdrawn the $248,000 and faced a long and expensive legal battle with no assurance of the outcome. Just as the highway department promised, the new appraisal, issued in 2012, came in much lower — this time at $92,000. The highway department now insisted that they return $158,000, the difference between the first and second appraisals.

But the Ramseys did not buckle, even when they learned that nothing in the law prevented this underhanded tactic. In practical terms, this meant that if the Ramseys went to court, the highway department could insist the property was worth only $92,000 and could conceal from the jury deciding what was right the original $248,000 valuation. The Waldo lawyers objected, but as  preposterous as it sounds, the Virginia Beach Circuit Court agreed with this interpretation of the law, that the highway department could lower an appraisal to pressure property owners into surrendering. Now, the Ramseys would have to pay the money back or take their chances before a jury.

Hopkins and Kunze, while doing their research, found eight other instances in which the highway department had used what they described as “bait and switch tactics” to intimidate property owners like the Ramseys into giving up. Jim and Janet decided to trust the jury,  knowing, as Kunze said, “We had one hand tied behind our back.”

Despite the handicap, the jury awarded them $234,000, more than double the $92,000 appraisal. But still, they were in the hole. The judge ordered them to pay back to the highway department approximately $14,000.

Jim and Janet decided that more was at stake than money.

“It’s just so wrong,” Jim said. “It’s sneaky. It’s conniving.”

They appealed the case to the Virginia Supreme Court, arguing that the state should not be allowed to play “fast and loose” with property owners as it had with the Ramseys and with the other eight property owners similarly pressured with lowered appraisals.

In 2015, the Supreme Court unanimously agreed that the Ramseys had been abused. By bringing the case, the justices said the Ramseys had created a “wholly appropriate check on the broad powers of the state in condemnation proceedings.” The justices ruled that the state could lower an appraisal, but it could never again keep this secret from a jury; from then on, it all had to be in the open.

The ruling was a precedent-setting victory for property owners, leveling the playing field and ending the ability of the state to play by a different and favorable set of rules. The stunning defeat, and the resulting bad press, put the highway department in the position into which it had tried to force the Ramseys. It settled for $330,000, closer to what the Ramseys had said was fair way back in 2009.

Of the lengthy battle, Kunze said: “No one should ever have such a long path to justice.”

Jim and Janet’s strong convictions made the path a little smoother and fairer for everyone.

Before his retirement in 2008, Dennis Hartig spent four decades reporting and editing for The Virginian-Pilot. As managing editor he directed reporting on eminent domain abuses and, later, as editorial page editor he crusaded for reforms.