Hamilton Herald Masthead


Front Page - Friday, May 10, 2019

Sanders finds niche with eminent domain defense cases

Trained theologian relishes a good fight with livelihoods in balance

Eighteenth-century English jurist William Blackstone once said, “So great is the regard of the law for private property that it will not authorize the least violation of it, not even for the general good of the whole community.”

Twentieth century Austrian economist Ludwig von Mises agreed. “If history could teach us anything, it would be that private property is inextricably linked with civilization.”

Adam Sanders, a 21st century attorney with Baker Donelson, adds: “As Americans, our dislike of the government taking private property is in our blood.”

The 37-year-old Sanders is such a firm believer in the sacrosanct nature of property rights in America that he’s passionately embraced a practice through which he actively works to protect them.

Sanders says he’ll never forget the first water condemnation case he tried. The matter had taken him and Joe Conner, the attorney with whom he works on eminent domain cases, to Mooresville, Indiana, to represent Indiana American Water, a privately-owned utility company the town was trying to acquire through the power of eminent domain.

“A government can use eminent domain to take over a privately owned company if it thinks it would be in the public’s interest to turn that private enterprise into a municipal one,” Sanders explains. “And where governments do that the most is with privately owned utility companies.

“They’ll use eminent domain to take not only the land the company owns but every truck, wrench, pipe, pump, hydrant, computer and office chair.”

At issue in Mooresville were the rates IAW was charging, which the town believed it could lower. Also at stake were the jobs of those who worked at IAW.

“The companies we represent typically employ many local people, and it’s my job to help them keep their jobs and allow them to continue providing an excellent resource to their community,” Sanders says.

First, Conner and Sanders mounted a defense against the town’s right to take IAW. When that didn’t work, they unsheathed Plan B, which involved making sure their client received the fair market value for its property, which they said was well above the $6.5 million the town was offering.

“We often find that governments are looking to acquire on the cheap,” Sanders says.

This rarely works. While Sanders says there are cases in which the use of eminent domain is appropriate, such as when a utility company needs to run a water main under a homeowner’s property, he also says people are skeptical about the government using it to take a privately-operated company that’s already serving the public.

“Juries make municipalities pay in those cases,” he adds.

In the Mooresville trial, the jury disagreed with the town’s $6.5 million appraisal of IAW and returned a verdict of $20.3 million.

The courtroom was packed with IAW employees clad in their uniforms. As the jury read its verdict, many of the workers burst into tears and stood to hug one another.

“They knew the verdict meant they would keep their jobs because the town couldn’t afford to spend $20.3 million,” Sanders recalls. “I was overwhelmed and teary, as well.”

Although Sanders devotes the bulk of his practice to eminent domain cases, he says he never imagined doing this kind of work. In fact, while in law school, he considered eminent domain law boring.

But after splitting his time during his first few years at Baker Donelson between intellectual property and eminent domain law, he realized he was thoroughly enjoying the latter.

“I believe in what I’m doing,” he says, referring to the jobs he’s helped to save as a result of representing companies like IAW.

Also, Sanders is a litigator by choice, and eminent domain cases nearly always go to trial, making the field a great way for him to chalk up trial experience.

“Eminent domain cases virtually never settle,” he acknowledges. “And I really enjoy trying cases.”

Sanders’ preference for trial work partly stems from his love of learning. He likes sinking his teeth into a subject that’s new to him and grinding down to the heart of it. “When you represent a water company, you have to learn about how water gets from the river to your tap,” he says. “I’ve always enjoyed learning about a diverse array of topics, so I’m happy doing this.”

Sanders also is pleased to have found a niche in which he can build a practice that makes a difference. “It’s an area of the law that’s less common, but every year, there are at least a few of these cases and they last several years,” he says. “So, it’s not only nice to have a niche, it’s nice to have a productive niche.”

If there’s something even more unique about Sanders’ practice than trying eminent domain cases, it’s his perception that he rarely loses one.

Even in cases in which the city acquires the utility company, there’s not just a silver lining but a golden one. “Even in cases where the transaction has gone through, it’s been at a price so favorable, our client was willing for it to happen,” Sanders says. “It wasn’t a defeat.”

The Mooresville case was certainly a de facto win for Conner and Sanders. A similar trial in Missoula, Montana, in 2015 also allowed the duo to put another mark in their win column after losing the first round.

Although Conner and Sanders mounted a vigorous three-week defense, Missoula was granted the right to take. This was disappointing, Sanders says, but during the subsequent trial to determine the cost of acquisition, he and Conner secured $88.6 million plus attorney fees and other expenses. All told, the city had to pay close to $100 million, which was significantly more than the $45-50 million it had offered beforehand.

Sanders does try other kinds of commercial cases. This past year, he worked on one involving the construction of a dam in North Carolina, and before that, he represented a company that makes machines on which carpets are tufted in a patent lawsuit.

“While my national marketing focuses almost exclusively on eminent domain, locally, I market for more general commercial litigation since there’s not much utility condemnation here,” he says.

Warming up to the law

Although Sanders says he’s doing the work he’s meant to do, there was a time when his thoughts resided far from the law. His reason: He didn’t like attorneys.

“I didn’t know any, but I thought they were probably distasteful people,” he says with an apologetic smile.

Sanders says he did enjoy challenging and pensive material, so he studied English and philosophy at Wheaton College in Illinois. After graduating in 2004, he attended seminary at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary in Boston while his wife was – ironically – taking classes at Suffolk University Law School.

“I wasn’t the best husband at the time,” he confesses. “I wasn’t encouraging to her about law school because I didn’t think highly of the profession and I wasn’t thrilled about the debt that might be entailed.

“I had a lot of growing to do during our first few years of marriage to be able to love and care for her rightly.”

After earning a master’s degree in theology, Sanders considered pursuing a doctorate in theology or philosophy and then teaching. But a strange thing had happened as his wife worked her way through law school: He became interested in the law.

“Watching her made me realize how fascinating the law is,” he remembers. “Many of the things I like about theology also connect to the law.

“By what standard can we know what’s right and wrong? Does the law embody morality? People often say you can’t impose your morality through law, but isn’t all law an imposition of morality?” he says. “I enjoy thinking about issues like that.”

Sanders also associated with his wife’s friends while she was in law school and learned they weren’t distasteful at all but were in fact normal people. He even enjoyed their company.

“We moved from Boston to Chattanooga for her summer internships here at Baker Donelson,” he recalls. “As the tagalong husband at all the social events, I got to know the lawyers here and realized I really liked them.”

With his objections to the law crushed, Sanders decided to tackle an academic program that would yield both a juris doctor degree and a doctorate in philosophy. There was just one problem: None of the joint programs to which he applied accepted him. “They’re very competitive, and I simply wasn’t a strong enough candidate,” he says.

This was a humbling and difficult moment that challenged Sanders’ self-concept. But after reorienting his thinking, he was able to see the opportunity that was available to him.

“I was accepted into the JD programs, so I said, ‘OK, Lord, the direction is clear; I’ll go to law school and just do the law,’” he says.

Having let some of his ambitions die in order to live the life he was meant to live, Sanders packed his bags for Duke University School of Law. But his lessons in making difficult choices weren’t over.

While in law school, Sanders interned at a large Atlanta law firm. This same firm offered him a job, which he readily accepted. Sanders then deferred his start date by two years to clerk for U.S. District Court Judge Curtis Collier in Chattanooga.

While living in the Scenic City, Sanders and his wife all but rooted themselves in the community. Then, as Sanders neared the end of his clerkship in 2012, he and his wife wrestled with what to do next.

“Why would we move when we have family we love here, when we’re deeply integrated into a church here and when we’re building friendships here?” they asked themselves. “Yes, the Atlanta market pays more than the Chattanooga market, but would the money make us happier than the things we have here with family and community?”

Although their questions seemed to answer themselves, Sanders still struggled to make a decision because he thought he wanted the big city, big firm experience and giving it up felt like letting another aspiration die.

But as his name on the door of his office at Baker Donelson makes clear, Sanders chose to remain in Chattanooga. And he’s glad he did.

“It’s hard for me to get into my head back then and remember why that was a hard decision to make,” he says. “It feels inevitable. The richness of the life we have here vindicates that decision.”

When Sanders started with Baker Donelson, he primarily did intellectual property work. A few weeks later, Conner invited the young attorney to lunch.

Their meeting was more than a meal, though; it was a providential appointment, Sanders notes.

Years earlier, the City of Chattanooga had tried to use its power of eminent domain to take the entirety of Tennessee American Water, a privately owned company. “If you turn on a tap in Chattanooga, that’s where your water comes from,” Sanders says.

Conner successfully represented TAW and, in 1999, the city abandoned its condemnation of the company.

The victory had a snowball effect on Conner’s practice. Before long, utility companies around the country were hiring him when facing the same issues.

During their lunch together, Conner asked Sanders if he would like to work for him. Not one to allow any decision to be easy, Sanders was cagey.

“I could tell from our conversation that Joe traveled a lot, and I didn’t want to do that,” Sanders says.

In the end, Sanders gave Conner a qualified yes. He would assist with his eminent domain work but from the homefront.

That said, Sanders soon found that the earth had once again shifted under his feet.

“We enjoyed working together and I realized there were fun aspects to the traveling,” Sanders continues. “Even when there weren’t, I was willing to travel to do this practice I enjoy.”

Sanders was reluctant to travel because he didn’t like being away from his family, which now consists of four daughters and his wife. But he found that seeing new places and getting to know a new community was enjoyable.

Sanders especially enjoyed spending time in Missoula. “The beauty and grandeur of the land moved me and I find myself still feeling attachment to this place, even though I spent only a few months there spread over several years,” he says.

“On one visit, I read ‘A River Runs Through It,’ which is set largely in Missoula, and that increased my sense of connection to the place.”

The notion that Sanders took the time to read a novel is one of the least surprising things about him. To spend even a few minutes with him is to discover that he’s more than an attorney who loves research, more than a hungry academic and more than a thoughtful philosopher. Like his wife’s friends in law school, he’s simply a normal person who enjoys a good book, a well-made movie and a captivating video game.

When it comes to the latter, Sanders likes to rope his daughters into the fun. “My kids and I really enjoy story-driven RPGs. Some our best times together are when we sit down to play a game,” he says. “Right now, we’re loving ‘The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild.’”

Sanders is typically introspective and speaks in carefully considered articulate sentences, but he brightens and relaxes when talking about his children, who include Bea, 9, Connie, 7, Vera, 5 and Joanna, 3.

“Being a father is the joy of my life,” he says, turning in his chair to look at four vibrant, smiling faces that beam out from an equal number of picture frames placed next to his desk. “People often ask me if I want a son. I really don’t care. I love having daughters. We have a fun household.”

Outside of work and family, Sanders channels the bulk of his remaining energy into working for his church, Covenant Presbyterian in East Brainerd. As an elder there, he’s responsible for the spiritual care of certain families.

Sanders learns about what’s taking place in their lives, visits and prays with them, and when they have a problem, ensures the church is responsive to their needs.

Sanders also teaches at Covenant Presbyterian, which allows him to put his seminary education to use. In addition to teaching an adult Sunday school class, he’s co-taught a Wednesday night class about interpreting the arts from a Christian perspective.

Sanders and the professor who taught with him brought in filmmakers and composers, showed clips from various movies (including the “Meal Ticket” vignette from the Coen brothers’ film “The Ballad of Buster Scruggs”) and discussed how to understand what a film is trying to communicate.

“Modern Americans are swimming in cultural creations. But if you have the vision of the Christian life that we do – that Jesus’ lordship applies to everything – and if you’re engaging in these cultural creations, how do you avoid being mindless, passive consumers and think thoughtfully about a movie?

“What is the filmmaker holding up as good, true and beautiful, and what things, even if the content is rough, show what’s false, ugly and evil? And do you agree with him or not?”

Sanders and his teaching partner also discussed architecture, how it communicates with the beholder and what its spiritual significance can be.

If there’s an end point to Sanders’ interests, it’s too far off to see. His other pursuits include playing the piano, building computers and whatever else grabs his attention.

As with the undergraduate student who picked two majors and the graduate student who wanted to earn multiple advanced degrees, there aren’t enough hours in the day to allow Sanders to sate his perpetual curiosity.

The law will never lack his attention, though, as it has captured his mind and heart.

“I believe I was led to do just law because it has the perfect blend of two things I like: the academic and the practical,” he says. “My time as an attorney is a blend of helping real people with concrete problems while focusing on research and thinking hard about a question.

“Even though it involved shutting a door I thought I really wanted to go through, it’s a good fit for me.”