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Supreme Court Decision in Knick Paves Direct Path to Federal Court for Property Owners

On June 21, 2019, the Supreme Court handed down a 5-4 decision in Knick v. Township of Scott, Pennsylvania, shaking up Fifth Amendment takings claim jurisprudence. Knick v. Township of Scott, Pennsylvania, 139 S.Ct. 2162 (2019). In Knick, the Court held that a property owner has an actionable Fifth Amendment takings claim at the moment a state or local government takes her property without paying just compensation, and that violation of the Fifth Amendment can be remedied in federal court via a civil rights action under 42 U.S.C. § 1983. The ruling overturned years of precedent that held that a plaintiff could not bring a takings claim in federal court against a state or local government until she had first exhausted her state court remedies. Knick specifically overruled Williamson County, the 1985 case which established the state-litigation requirement. Williamson County Regional Planning Comm’n v. Hamilton Bank of Johnson City, 473 U.S. 172 (1985).

Rose Mary Knick owns 90 acres of land in Scott Township, Pennsylvania, which is located in the northeast region of the Commonwealth. Her property has a small family-graveyard on it, and it is this graveyard that was the catalyst for the suit. In 2012, the Township passed an ordinance that all cemeteries “be kept open and accessible to the general public during daylight hours.” In addition, the ordinance allowed Township “code enforcement” officers to “enter upon any property” to determine the existence and location of a cemetery.

The takings clause of the Fifth Amendment to the United States Constitution states, “nor shall private property be taken for public use, without just compensation.” In Knick’s view, the Township’s attempt to enforce the ordinance represented an unconstitutional taking of her land, so she filed a civil rights action in federal court under Section 1983. That suit was dismissed, however, because precedent under Williamson County held that a plaintiff had to exhaust her state court remedies before bringing a takings claim in federal court. Because Knick had not yet done so, her claim was deemed unripe. Knick appealed her case to the Third Circuit, which upheld the lower court’s ruling, so Knick petitioned the Supreme Court for certiorari.

Under Williamson County, a plaintiff who alleged an unconstitutional taking under the Fifth Amendment by the federal government could bring her claim directly in federal court, but a plaintiff who alleged an unconstitutional taking under the Fifth Amendment by a state or local government had to first exhaust her state court remedies before filing in federal court. This disparity in procedure occasionally produced unequal results for plaintiffs. Writing for the majority in Knick, Chief Justice John Roberts described the problem created by Williamson County as follows:

[T]he 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.

Knick, 139 S.Ct. at 2179.

The decision also emphasized the contrast between a plaintiff with a takings claim, and a plaintiff with any other Section 1983 claim, pointing out that the existence of a state claim for battery does not preclude a plaintiff from bringing a Fourth Amendment claim for unconstitutional excessive force. To remedy the disparity in procedure (and subsequent potential disparity in remedy), the Court overruled Williamson County, and established that plaintiffs with takings claims against state and local governments have federal civil rights claims under Section 1983 at the moment the unconstitutional taking is effected.

Justice Elena Kagan penned a vigorous dissent which argued that a proper reading of the takings clause recognizes that the clause has “two necessary elements. First, the government must take the property. Second, it must deny the property owner just compensation.” The dissent argued that only after being denied compensation by all available state remedies does an unconstitutional taking occur. This stands in contrast to the majority’s reading of the takings clause, which holds that a takings violation occurs at the moment the property is taken. Additionally, the dissent described overturning Williamson County as “transgress[ing] all usual principles of stare decisis,” which is a result the Court usually tries to avoid. Id. at 2181.

A final criticism levied by the dissent was that federal courts would become enmeshed in a significant number of local and state land use issues, which would “betray[] judicial federalism.” Id. at 2189. Going forward, it will be interesting to see how many plaintiffs actually choose to bring their takings claim against a state or local government directly to federal court, and how takings claim jurisprudence will continue to evolve in the wake of Knick.