Property Taking Claims No Longer Required to Prosecute State or Local Appeal Procedures Before Suing in Federal Court

Knick v. Township of Scott
United States Supreme Court, No. 17–647
Friday, June 21, 2019

The Township of Scott, Pennsylvania, passed an ordinance requiring that “[a]ll cemeteries . . . be kept open and accessible to the general public during daylight hours.” Subsequently, the Township sought to enforce the ordinance against the owner of a property containing a private burial ground. After several intermediate steps, the owner sued the Township in federal court alleging that it had committed a taking without just compensation in violation of the Fifth Amendment by forcing her to hold open her private property to the public and duly authorized code enforcement officers.

In this decision the Court overruled its prior opinion in Williamson County Regional Planning Comm'n v. Hamilton Bank of Johnson City, 473 U.S. 172 (1985), which required property owners whose property had been taken by state or local governments to file proceedings in state court for “just compensation” before their federal takings claim could ripen.  In overruling Williamson County the Court concluded that the state-litigation requirement imposes an unjustifiable burden on takings plaintiffs and conflicts with other court decisions on the subject of property takings.  As a consequence, a property owner has an actionable, Fifth Amendment takings claim when the government takes her property without paying for it.

In other words, property owners alleging that a state or local government violated the Takings Clause need not exhaust their state remedies before applying to federal court. The Court reasoned that this shift was more consistent with their Takings Jurisprudence and more in line with the text of the Fifth Amendment. Turning to the text of the Clause, the Court explained that it provides “[N]or shall private property be taken for public use, without just compensation,” not “Nor shall private property be taken for public use, without an available procedure that will result in compensation.” As a consequence, Williamson’s imposition of a state remedy was irrelevant for the purpose of determining if a local government has violated the Fifth Amendment. Any property owner whose property has been taken without just compensation provided at the time of the taking can bring suit in federal court to secure a right guaranteed under the Constitution.

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Practice Pointer:  Municipalities should be extraordinarily concerned if they currently issue or are asked to issue right of way permits to pass over private property, e.g. to a private burial ground or timber operation. Although the processes provided for under state law may be distinguishable from Knick, it now appears likely that a landowner who wants to challenge the select board’s authority to issue a right of way permit as a taking now has an immediate federal court avenue for suit.