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Small Town Lawyer Whips Giant Railway and Giant Firm

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Decatur, ILDarrell Woolums is a history buff with a streak of perseverance just about as long as the Illinois Central Railway. A self described small town attorney Woolums, won an epic battle when he forced the fabled Illinois Central to admit it took hundreds of thousands of dollars from farm families in exchange for property the company did not really own.

"The railroad put up a ferocious defense," says Woolums. "They hired the biggest law firm in the world, Baker and McKenzie, to represent them and they filed motion after motion to dismiss. We amended the complaint six times and made nine trips to the appellate court."

It took 16 years for Woolums to get the railway to buckle, but it finally agreed to a mediated settlement of $5.8 million. "They tried to wear us down with motions and appeals, but it didn't work."

Woolum's firm does not do very much litigation. He is mostly involved in real estate transactions and wills, and does a lot of work for non-profit organizations like the municipality of Decatur.

It was around 1992 when the railway offered to sell the city some land connected to abandoned railway tracks in Decatur. As the municipality's lawyer, Woolums started hunting through court documents looking for the railway's title to the land. "I could find absolutely nothing to show the railway owned the land," says Woolums.

That was the first clue that something was rotten in the state of Illinois.

The land had actually been granted, at no charge, to the railway by the US government some 150 years before. Not only that, the railway had sold other portions of granted land to farmers along a 200-mile stretch in the same area years before. To add insult to injury, Illinois Central, now owned by the Canadian National Railway, knew it did not own the land.

"Due to the documents we found during the course of the litigation and from evidence found at discovery, we knew their own legal representatives had told railroad executives they had no to right to sell the land because they didn't own it," says Woolums.

At this point, the words of TV's Dr. Phil come to mind—what were they thinking? "That's what we can't really understand," says Woolums.

Woolums has an undergraduate degree in history and an obvious respect for the back busting efforts of early pioneers who came to the Midwest. He and two fellow lawyers hammered through courthouse documents and land titles looking for farmers or their descendents who you might say, had been railroaded. "We really beat the bushes, we wanted people to get their money," he says. They put ads in the local papers and when that didn't work, they hit the phones. "We just started telephoning people, we used word of mouth and really tried to contact every possible class action member to make sure they got their claim on file."

Woolums is a modest man. "I never let myself get too high, or too low," he says. After the railway's legal team finally signed off on the settlement on the 56th floor of the Citibank building in Chicago, Woolums and his colleagues went to a bar to have a drink and celebrate.

"As I got up to go, they all started clapping, and then everyone in the whole place started clapping. It was a hell of a feeling," he says.

And here is the zinger. There may be similar cases out there. Many railways across the US were granted land at no charge. There may be other cases where it was sold without legal ownership. As long and arduous as this case was he would be thrilled to do it all over again. "We know how to do it, we know the law," he says.

Darrell Woolums is a partner in Samuels, Miller, Schroeder, Jackson & Sly. Woolums attended John Marshall Law School (1976), and earned a B.S. from Ventura Junior College at Illinois State University (1971).

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