June 26, 2019

Open for Business: Supreme Court Opens Federal Courts to Fifth Amendment Takings Claims

Landowners can now pursue their Fifth Amendment taking claims directly in federal court when the government takes property without paying just compensation, according to the Supreme Court in its decision in Knick v. Township of Scott, Pennsylvania, No. 17-647, issued on June 21, 2019.

The decision overruled Williamson County Regional Planning Comm’n v. Hamilton Bank of Johnson City, 473 U.S. 172 (1985), an often-criticized case that required landowners to first go to state court to pursue their Fifth Amendment Takings Clause claims before seeking redress in the federal courts.

The case was brought by Rose Mary Knick whose 90-acre rural property included a small family graveyard where the ancestors of Knick’s neighbors are allegedly buried. Such family cemeteries are common in Pennsylvania, where “backyard burials” have long been permitted.

Scott Township passed an ordinance requiring all cemeteries to be kept “open and accessible to the general public during daylight hours” and entitled code enforcement officers to enter the property at any time to determine the existence and location of a cemetery. In 2013, a Scott Township officer learned of the burial ground on Knick’s property and informed her that she was violating the ordinance by failing to keep the cemetery open to the public during the day.

Knick sued in state court for declaratory and injunctive relief, claiming that the ordinance constituted a taking of her property, but she did not pursue an inverse-condemnation action to recover compensation. After Scott Township withdrew the violation notice and agreed to stay enforcement of the ordinance during the state court lawsuit, the state trial judge declined to rule on Knick’s request for injunctive relief because without any ongoing enforcement action, she could not demonstrate the irreparable harm necessary for equitable relief.

Knick then filed a § 1983 action in federal district court, alleging that the ordinance violated the Takings Clause of the Fifth Amendment. But the district court dismissed her claim under Williamson County because she hadn’t first pursued an inverse-condemnation action in state court. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the 3rd Circuit affirmed, despite noting that the ordinance was “extraordinary and constitutionally suspect.”

In its reversal, the Supreme Court emphasized that the Takings Clause of the Fifth Amendment states that “private property [shall not] be taken for public use, without just compensation.” The Court held that this means that a government violates the Takings Clause immediately upon taking property without paying for it, even if state law provides a mechanism for property owners to recover just compensation at a later date.

This directly overruled the Supreme Court’s prior holding in Williamson County, which concluded that a taking does not give rise to a federal constitutional claim until a landowner has attempted to use the state courts to obtain compensation through an inverse-condemnation claim. That holding, coupled with another Supreme Court case holding that the state proceedings would later preclude any subsequent federal suits, meant that prior to Knick, landowners could never seek redress for Fifth Amendment violations of the Takings Clause in federal court.

As the Supreme Court noted in Knick, this prior case law left Takings plaintiffs subject to a true “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.” This “Catch-22” had been criticized by justices and commentators for years and now the Supreme Court has fixed this previously unworkable legal maze.

Chief Justice John Roberts delivered the opinion of the Court, in which Justices Clarence Thomas, Samuel Alito, Neil Gorsuch and Brett Kavanaugh joined. Justice Thomas also filed a concurring opinion. Justice Elena Kagan filed a dissenting opinion, in which Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Sonia Sotomayor and Stephen Breyer joined.

Download Opinion of the Court.
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