In Crooks v. State of Louisiana through the Department of Natural Resources, 22-0625 (La. 1/1/23), ___ So. 3d ___, 2023 WL 526075, the Louisiana Supreme Court rejected a writ of mandamus that would have compelled the LDNR to satisfy a $4.7 million judgment for reimbursement of mineral royalties. In doing so, the Court further cemented the legislature’s sole authority to determine whether and when to satisfy judgments against the State and its agencies.
In 2006, a group of landowners filed a class action lawsuit against the State of Louisiana through the Louisiana Department of Natural Resources (“LDNR”) concerning the ownership of riverbanks in the Catahoula Basin. Specifically, the class plaintiffs claimed to be the rightful owners of the adjacent riverbanks, which the State had exercised ownership over up until that time. In 2015, the trial court recognized the plaintiffs as the rightful owners of the riverbanks and ordered the LDNR to pay back almost $4.7 million in mineral royalties attributable to ownership of these banks.
The LDNR, however, failed to satisfy the judgment, so the plaintiffs sought a writ of mandamus to force the LDNR to pay. The trial court denied the writ but the Louisiana Third Circuit reversed, holding that the funds sought were not public funds and that the judgment could not be enforced by ordinary means. The LDNR subsequently applied for supervisory writs to the Louisiana Supreme Court, arguing that mandamus violates the sole authority of the legislature to appropriate funds to pay for judgments against the State under Louisiana Constitution article XII §10(C) and La. R.S. 13:5109(B)(2). The Court granted writs and ultimately reversed the Third Circuit’s grant of mandamus.
In an opinion by Justice Griffin, the Court emphasized that mandamus is an “extraordinary remedy” that compels a public officer to perform a ministerial duty. A “ministerial duty” is one in which the public officer has no discretion, which the Court also described as “a simple, definite duty, arising under conditions admitted or proved to exist, and imposed by law.” If a public officer has any element of discretion, “mandamus will not lie.” The Court then pointed to Louisiana Constitution article XII §10(C) and La. R.S. 13:5109(B)(2), which state that judgments against the State or a state agency shall only be paid from funds appropriated for that purpose by the legislature. Given that “appropriating funds is, by its nature, discretionary” and therefore not a ministerial duty, mandamus is generally unavailable to compel the payment of judgments against the State or its agencies.
Plaintiffs argued for the application of the Jazz Casino and Lowther cases, in which the Court held that there was no discretion required to appropriate funds for judgments on overpaid taxes and firefighters’ back wages, respectively. The Court distinguished those cases, pointing to constitutional and statutory provisions that mandate appropriation under those specific circumstances. Those provisions act as a “de facto appropriation” and remove any discretion involved in paying out judgments for overpaid taxes or firefighters’ back wages. As there are no such provisions governing the Crooks plaintiffs’ mineral royalties claims, the legislature has retained its discretion to appropriate funds for those claims. The Court also rejected the Third Circuit’s holding that the funds were not public funds, as the collected mineral royalties were deposited into the State General Fund and their expenditure would create a deficit in the Fund.
The Crooks ruling reinforces the difficulties that judgment creditors of the LDNR may face in collecting on their judgments. Indeed, without a specific constitutional or statutory provision guaranteeing payment, recovery against the LDNR comes at the sole discretion of the legislature. Prospective litigants would be wise to take a hard look at the statutes – and perhaps speak to their local State Representatives – as first steps in any legal action against the LDNR.
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