A federal judge gave final approval Wednesday to a $3.79 million class action settlement over claims by thousands of Kansas landowners against three of the nation's largest telecommunications companies in a property rights dispute over installation of fiber optic cable on railroad rights of way.
The ruling by U.S. Magistrate Judge Kenneth Gale affects about 3,700 Kansas landowners with property adjacent and underlying the railroad rights of way.
Under terms of the settlement, more than $2.4 million in benefits will be available for landowners. An additional $1 million goes for attorneys' fees and $321,000 pays administrative costs.
The federal lawsuit in Kansas was filed in 2010 against Sprint Communications Co., Qwest Communication Co. and Level 3 Communications.
The judge found that attorneys' fees of 26 percent of the value of the settlement were "especially reasonable" given the unusually lengthy and hard-fought litigation. He noted similar attorney awards in the nine other settlements have received final approval in federal courts in Idaho, Illinois, Alabama, North Dakota, Montana, Michigan, Minnesota, Virginia and Vermont.
Gale initially granted preliminary approval to the Kansas settlement in March, an action that triggered the mailings of formal notifications to landowners and hearings over the deal.
The Kansas settlement is among 46 settlements of railway rights of way lawsuits in various legal stages across the country.
At issue in some of the 70 similar lawsuits filed in state and federal courts is the practice whereby telecommunications installed fiber-optic cable systems in railroad rights of way by reaching agreements with the railroads that possessed those rights. The plaintiffs alleged the railroads do not have sufficient rights to authorize the installation, while the defendants disagreed.
Under the settlement, the telecom companies will get easements from landowners for fiber-optic cable.
Payments to landowners with valid claims vary on whether the railroad originally acquired the property under a federal land-grant statute or by private conveyance.
That dates back to the mid-1800s when Congress tried to encourage the building of transcontinental railroads by granting railroads not only right of way corridors but also ownership of alternating sections of public lands on either side of those corridors, according to court documents.
Kansas landowners with property adjacent to nonland-grant rights of way who submit a qualified claim would be paid $2.10 per foot. Property owners with land-grant claims would be paid between 13 cents and 52 cents per foot.