Landmark Decision Provides for Greater Federal Property Rights Suits
by Jake Madden on June 26, 2019
On June 21, 2019, the Supreme Court paved the way for property owners to sue local, county, and state governments in federal court.
In a 5-4 decision in Knick v. Township of Scott, Pennsylvania, 588 U.S. ___ (2019) the United States Supreme Court overruled the precedent set by Williamson County Regional Planning Commission v. Hamilton Bank of Johnson City, 473 U.S. 172 (1985).
In the Williamson case, Hamilton Bank of Johnson City alleged that local zoning laws preventing the bank from developing a tract of land into a residential subdivision constituted a taking of the bank’s property. The bank filed what is known as a takings claim. Takings claims originate from the Takings Clause of the Fifth Amendment to the United States Constitution, which states, “nor shall private property be taken for public use, without just compensation.” The Supreme Court ruled that property owners could only file a suit in federal court once all state administrative remedies had been exhausted, that is, once all possible remedial actions had been taken in state court.
Critics of the decision made in Williamson argued that the case significantly damaged the constitutional protections afforded to property rights. Exhausting one’s remedies in state court can take years, leading many developments to be denied.
In Knick, property owner Rose Mary Knick maintained a small family graveyard on her property. In 2012, the township passed an ordinance requiring that all cemeteries be kept open to the general public during daylight hours. This ordinance also allowed for township officials to enter any property within the township to determine if the property contained a cemetery.
Knick was cited by a township official in 2013 for violating the ordinance, and Knick filed a takings claim in state court. She did not however bring an inverse condemnation action against the township seeking compensation. The township withdrew the violation, so the state court determined that Knick could not demonstrate the harm necessary for relief. Knick appealed to the United States District Court for the Middle District of Pennsylvania. The Court dismissed the case because she did not bring an inverse condemnation action in the state court. The Third Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed.
Chief Justice John Roberts expresses in the majority opinion of Knick the Supreme Court’s belief that the Williamson decision was flawed. The opinion indicates that Williamson relied on shaky foundations, was poorly reasoned, and conflicted with much of the Court’s takings jurisprudence. The Court believes that the exhaustion of administrative remedies creates an unjustifiable burden. Knick was justified to file suit in federal court without fully exhausting all state court remedies. By overturning the Williamson decision through Knick, Chief Justice Roberts makes clear that the Court is “restoring takings claims to the full-fledged constitutional status the Framers envisioned when they included the Clause among other protections in the Bill of Rights.”
With the decision in Knick it is certain that there are going to be significantly more property rights and takings claim cases filed in federal court. Local and county governments need to be aware of this new direction for property rights and takings claims litigation.