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U.S. Supreme Court Opens the Door to Federal Court for Takings Plaintiffs

Matthew D. Harper and Charles E. Sulek
9/3/19

Columns on Building   Property owners faced with eminent domain takings of their property without just compensation are no longer bound to spend valuable time and money litigating in state court only to find out they can never get to federal court.  More than thirty years ago, the U.S. Supreme Court held in Williamson County Regional Planning Comm’n v. Hamilton Bank, that a property owner whose property had been taken by a state or local government without just compensation could not bring a takings claim under the Fifth Amendment until a state court had first denied their claim for compensation under state law.  This year, the Court revisited this issue in Knick v. Township of Scott and reversed the Williamson County decision.  Now, a property owner can proceed directly to federal court and seek compensation under the Takings Clause of the Fifth Amendment.

   Rose Mary Knick owns 90 acres of land, which includes a small family graveyard, in Scott Township, Pennsylvania.  The Township passed an ordinance requiring all cemeteries be open and accessible to the public during daylight hours.  The ordinance also authorized Township officials to “enter upon any property” to verify the existence and location of a cemetery.  In 2013, the Township learned of the cemetery on Knick’s property and informed her that she had been violating the ordinance by failing to keep the cemetery open to the public during the day.  Knick subsequently sought declaratory and injunctive relief in a Pennsylvania state court arguing the ordinance effected a taking of her property.  The state court denied the requested relief on procedural grounds.

   Rather than continue in state court, Knick filed a claim in federal district court alleging the ordinance violated the Takings Clause of the Fifth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. The district court dismissed the claim based on Williamson County.  The Third Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed that decision.

   The Supreme Court reversed.  The Court noted that “[t]he Takings Clause of the Fifth Amendment states that ‘private property [shall not] be taken for public use, without just compensation.’”  The Court acknowledged the prior decision of Williamson County requiring exhaustion of state court remedies before a federal claim may be brought, but recognized that decision effectively meant a property owner could never bring a claim for a taking in federal court.  The Court explained:

[A] state court's resolution of a claim for just compensation under state law generally has preclusive effect in any subsequent federal suit. The takings plaintiff thus finds himself in a Catch-22: He cannot go to federal court without going to state court first; but if he goes to state court and loses, his claim will be barred in federal court. The federal claim dies aborning.

Even though federal law permits a civil suit in federal court for violations of constitutional rights without first resorting to state courts, “the guarantee of a federal forum rings hollow for takings plaintiffs, who are forced to litigate their claims in state court.”

   The Court concluded the Williamson County requirement imposed too great a burden on takings plaintiffs, “rests on a mistaken view of the Fifth Amendment,” and must be overruled.  Ultimately, the Court held that “because a taking without compensation violates the self-executing Fifth Amendment at the time of the taking, the property owner can bring a federal suit at that time.” Thus, “the availability of any particular compensation remedy” (including for example Ohio’s requirement that a person who suffers a taking without compensation seek a writ of mandamus to compel the government to initiate condemnation proceedings) “cannot infringe or restrict the property owner’s federal constitutional claim.”

   The import of Knick cannot be overstated.  Now, a property owner can proceed directly to federal court and seek compensation under the Takings Clause of the Fifth Amendment, saving the expense of state court litigation and limiting the time spent in litigation.

  Should you have any questions regarding the Knick decision, please contact Mr. Harper or Mr. Sulek.

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   Disclaimer: The article in this publication has been prepared by Eastman & Smith Ltd. for informational purposes only and should not be considered legal advice. This information is not intended to create, and receipt of it does not constitute, an attorney/client relationship.

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