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June 27, 2019  |  Written by Brenda C. Bass

U.S. Supreme Court Reverses Takings Precedent to Allow State and Local Government Takings Claims to Proceed in Federal Court

Last week, the United States Supreme Court overruled a prior decision that required property owners alleging a taking of their property without just compensation by a state or local government to first pursue this claim in state court.  The ruling in Knick v. Township of Scott, __ U.S. __, No. 17-647, slip op. (U.S. June 21, 2019) means that property owners now have a choice between state court and federal court when pursuing a takings claim against a state or local government.

The plaintiff in Knick owns and resides on rural property in Pennsylvania, which includes a small family graveyard.  A local ordinance requires that all cemeteries be kept open to the public, and the plaintiff was notified that she was in violation of this ordinance.  The plaintiff brought her regulatory takings claim to federal court, rather than state court.

In 1985, the Supreme Court held in Williamson County Regional Planning Commission v. Hamilton Bank of Johnson City, 473 U.S. 172 (Williamson), that a Fifth Amendment takings claim was not “ripe” for litigation in federal court until a state court had denied the takings claim.  Upon that denial, the plaintiff could then file its claim in federal court.  Additionally, due to the application of the full faith and credit statute to takings claims in San Remo Hotel, L.P. v. City and County of San Francisco, 545 U. S. 323 (2005), federal courts must honor the determinations made by state courts.  In short, if a state court denies a takings claim, then the federal court must honor that denial.  These cases together essentially prevented federal courts from considering Fifth Amendment takings claims against state or local governments.

In Knick, the Supreme Court determined the ripeness hurdle articulated in Williamson did not comport with other takings jurisprudence, which states that property owners have a right to just compensation the moment a taking of their property occurs.  In overruling Williamson, the Supreme Court stated that “[t]he availability of any particular compensation remedy, such as inverse condemnation under state law, cannot infringe or restrict the property owner’s federal constitutional claim.”  This is in recognition that making litigation in state courts a prerequisite to pursuing a federal takings claim under the Fifth Amendment “imposes an unjustifiable burden on takings plaintiffs.”  However, the ruling does not permit property owners to obtain compensation through both the state and federal court system.  The Knick ruling also does not allow federal courts to enjoin enforcement of local regulations.  Knick merely declares that a federal court or a state court may provide just compensation for a taking of property by a state or local government.

For additional information on this topic, please contact Brenda Bass at bbass@somachlaw.com.

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