Karmen Johnson-Tutwiler’s oxygen dropped to a dangerous level on a Friday in late January; she needed to rush to a hospital. But she stopped at a Starbucks on the way. Not for coffee, but because a Byhalia Pipeline agent gave her a high-stakes choice: meet him to sign paperwork or lose control of her family land in court, she said.
Now, she’s suing the company to undo the agreement.
“They didn’t have any compassion, no sympathy … they (couldn’t) care less,” Johnson-Tutwiler said. “They’re aggressive, especially if you’re not giving them what they want.”
The agent misrepresented the purpose of the paperwork and took advantage of Johnson-Tutwiler’s medical distress to trick her into selling the company an easement, according to the lawsuit filed Wednesday in Shelby County Circuit Court. The agent told her signing would prevent the court from giving the easement to the company for $148, she said.
A representative for Byhalia Pipeline said Thursday the company doesn’t comment on pending legal matters.
Johnson-Tutwiler is the first landowner to go on the legal offensive against Byhalia Pipeline alleging predatory practices, despite the company’s claims of respect and fairness in their dealings with Memphis landowners.
Byhalia Connection Pipeline
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The project has received national attention as critics contend the company chose a predominantly Black and low-income area to route their crude oil pipeline. Several local government officials are backing opposition to the pipeline and assert it would pose a risk to the city’s main water supply.
Byhalia Pipeline — a joint venture of Texas-based Plains All American Pipeline and Valero Energy Corporation — announced plans for the Byhalia Connection Pipeline in 2019. The proposed route would connect the Valero Memphis Refinery and a Valero facility in Marshall County, Mississippi. The route runs through several Black neighborhoods, including Westwood, Whitehaven and Boxtown.
Something to call your own
Boxtown is where Johnson-Tutwiler made some of her childhood memories.
“It’s always important to have a piece of property of your own,” Johnson-Tutwiler recalled her mother telling her and her sister when they were children, back in the days when she and her cousins would ride bikes up and down a hill on her mother’s land.
Her mother died 10 years ago. Johnson-Tutwiler now lives in Olive Branch, Mississippi, but still holds the small, empty parcel dear. Her sister isn’t able to help look after the 0.23-acre-property that backs up to railroad tracks, so it’s fallen to Johnson-Tutwiler to manage it and pay taxes.
Her plan is to pass her share to her three children.
“That was the only thing I had that my mom left with us that we could pass down through the family,” Johnson-Tutwiler said. “We have pictures and things like that, but her land is something that we could keep forever.”
Byhalia Pipeline has taken at least 10 Southwest Memphis landowners to court, including Johnson-Tutwiler, in an attempt to gain easements on their property through eminent domain, a government power to seize land for a public purpose.
Governments may grant the power to private companies, such as utility and phone providers, for public projects. Attorneys for the company will face two other landowners in court this month where they will present arguments on whether Byhalia Pipeline is allowed to use the power under Tennessee law.
Fighting an eminent domain case requires a lot of money, attorneys have said. Therefore, some landowners in the 38109 area — where the median income is $31,114 — chose to accept the company’s offer to avoid having to forfeit the land rights for even less than the “pennies and peanuts” they’re offering, as landowner Joseph Owens put it.
A rushed process
A company agent first reached out to Johnson-Tutwiler via Facebook in February of last year, according to the lawsuit.
Johnson-Tutwiler initially ignored the agent’s Facebook messages and hundreds of pages of paperwork he sent to her home. She didn’t fully understand what the paperwork meant, so she met with the agent on the property to learn more.
She ignored the company’s initial offer of $3,500 to buy an easement, calling it an insult.
“These people are going to make billions of dollars off this pipeline … I’m no fool by far,” Johnson-Tutwiler said. “While that oil is pumping, they’re still making money off of it, while (they) gave these people kibbles and bits.”
Afterward, Johnson-Tutwiler sent the agent a counteroffer of $1,000 per linear foot of the pipeline that would cross her property, which totaled $100,000. Byhalia Pipeline rejected the offer, according to the lawsuit.
In November 2020, Johnson-Tutwiler’s sister told her she was being harassed via social media and by phone by two Byhalia Pipeline agents replacing the first. They eventually contacted Johnson-Tutwiler, who told the agents her sister isn’t mentally well enough to make decisions about the property, according to the lawsuit. The agent replied that Johnson-Tutwiler’s sister, “seemed fine.” This led Johnson-Tutwiler to believe the agents were stalking her and her sister.
Byhalia Pipeline filed the eminent domain case against Johnson-Tutwiler on Nov. 20. On Jan. 20 they informed her she was being sued and a court date was set for Jan. 25. She spoke to another agent, Joseph Hager, who told her if she didn’t sign the paperwork, a judge would give the easement to the company.
Johnson-Tutwiler, who is Black, has lupus and chronic asthma.
Lupus, a chronic autoimmune disease without a cure, inflames Johnson-Tutwiler’s body and triggers asthma attacks making it hard for her to breathe during flare-ups. Nine out of 10 adults with lupus are women and Black women are three times more likely to have lupus than white women, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Chronic asthma is 40% more common and three times as deadly for Black people than for white people, according to federal statistics from 2018 and 2019.
Johnson-Tutwiler’s oxygen level was at 80%, a dangerous low, when she saw her doctor in East Memphis on Jan. 22. The pulmonary specialist instructed her to go straight to the hospital for treatment, she said. Johnson-Tutwiler needed to stop by her home first to get her emergency bag. It had inhalers, pajamas, a portable oxygen tank, and daily medications she keeps packed at all times for lupus flare-ups.
She called Hager to tell him she couldn’t make the court date that Monday. In response, Hager told her she’d lose her easement for $148. But if she met him to sign his papers, it would put a “hold” on court. He said her sister needed to be present too, according to the lawsuit.
Given the impending court deadline, Johnson-Tutwiler detoured. The sisters met the agent in the parking lot of a Starbucks despite the doctor’s orders. Johnson-Tutwiler noticed her sister looked ill, too. She was skeptical of the situation, as Hager hurried them to sign and dismissed Johnson-Tutwiler’s concern about the absence of a notary, the suit says.
With the help of her emergency oxygen supply, Johnson-Tutwiler fought through a “suffocating feeling,” signed the papers then got back on the road to Saint Francis Hospital where she was admitted for a week and a half.
Johnson-Tutwiler had staved off court until she was well again — so she thought. It wasn’t until a member of Memphis Community Against the Pipeline contacted her that she learned she’d sold her easement. And she hasn’t been paid, she said.
An attorney for Byhalia Pipeline told a judge in a March 4 hearing that the company had negotiated an agreement with Johnson-Tutwiler and her sister, and on April 7 they dropped the eminent domain case.
What she signed was an affidavit of heirship confirming the land is hers and an easement grant, effectively selling her control to the company.
Now she has representation from Scott Crosby, an attorney with the Memphis law firm Burch, Porter and Johnson. Crosby said the negotiating field was uneven to begin with.
“You have this large billion-dollar corporation and you have an individual on the other side with the threat of, ‘I’m going to take you to court. I’m going to take your land. You better sign this contract,’” Crosby said. “The inequity of the negotiating parties in this situation is just fertile ground for undue influence and duress to occur.”
In addition to rescinding the easement grant, the lawsuit requests that the court award Johnson-Tutwiler attorney fees, expenses and “other and further damages and/or equitable relief.”
Representatives for Byhalia Pipeline have claimed the company has offered landowners above market value for their easements and strive to be, “good neighbors.”
Memphians support the project but feel pressured to stay quiet, Katie Martin, communications manager for Plains, told county commissioners last month.
“Because we’ve been open and honest, there’s a lot of people who have come to support us,” Martin said. “We know that the media has received letters in support of this project and just won’t print them. We know that many people won’t speak up because of the unconscionable pressure and bullying that’s been targeted at our consultants and even at nonprofit leaders, but our supporters are still there. Ninety-six percent of landowners have signed easements.”
However, that percentage does not indicate how many Memphians granted easements along the route. Some landowners live in other states, some are businesses and some own multiple parcels.
Citing that percentage is meant to misrepresent Southwest Memphis landowners and portray them as supportive of the project, said Kathy Robinson, a co-founder of MCAP. Johnson-Tutwiler’s story proves not every easement was obtained fairly and an agreement doesn’t mean support for the project, Robinson said.
“What they’re not telling you is some of these people felt bullied to sign. Some of these people felt as if they had no other choice. Some of these people were led to believe that they were the last holdout, so it would be in their best interest to sell,” Robinson said.
“With Karmen (Johnson-Tutwiler’s) story, they caught her at a low point in her life (when) she was sick and she didn’t have the energy to fight. Whereas Mr. Owens, he felt he couldn’t afford an attorney. Most of those numbers, I would argue, (are) people that felt they had no other choice.”
A judge will hear arguments at 11 a.m. April 23 from attorneys, including Crosby, representing two landowners and company lawyers on whether Byhalia Pipeline is allowed to claim eminent domain under Tennessee law.
Carrington J. Tatum is a corps member with Report for America, a national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org
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