Aug. 7, 2019 – The U.S. Supreme Court’s 2018 term ended in typical blockbuster fashion in June. Some of the High Court’s decisions will impact Wisconsin by varying degree. But one decision may have a direct impact, in the area of eminent domain.
In Knick v. Township of Scott, Pennsylvania, 139 S.Ct. 2162 (2019), the U.S. Supreme Court ruled (5-4) that claimants are not required to seek just compensation, through inverse condemnation actions, before filing a takings claim in federal court.
That is, the Knick majority ruled that when the government takes private property without paying just compensation, the owner has an actionable claim under the federal Takings Clause. The Takings Clause of the Fifth Amendment says the government cannot take private property for public use without paying just compensation.
The Knick decision overrules a 1985 decision – Williamson County Regional Planning Comm’n v. Hamilton Bank of Johnson City, 473 U.S. 172 (1985) – which required property owners to first seek compensation through the state courts before filing in federal court. But the five-justice majority said that requirement doesn’t make sense.
“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, the claim will be barred in federal court,” wrote Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr.
The five-justice majority ruled that exhaustion of state remedies is not a prerequisite to a 42 U.S.C. section 1983 action for just compensation under the Takings Clause.
“We now conclude that the state litigation requirement imposes an unjustifiable burden on takings plaintiffs, conflicts with the rest of our takings jurisprudence, and must be overruled,” Chief Justice Roberts explained.
Sara Beachy, who practices eminent domain and condemnation law at Axley Brynelson in Madison, says the Knick decision paves the way for federal court claims.
“State law procedures vary widely among states, and some are more favorable to property owners than others,” Beachy wrote in a recent blog post. Beachy is also a co-author of Condemnation Law and Practice in Wisconsin (2d ed. 2018).
“It’s not clear how many owners will take the federal path. It’s also not clear whether Knick applies to non-government condemnors, such as utilities.”
The Knick Case
Rose Mary Knick sought judicial relief after the local government, the Township of Scott, passed an ordinance requiring all cemeteries to be open and accessible to the public.
org jforward wisbar Joe Forward, Saint Louis Univ. School of Law 2010, is a legal writer for the State Bar of Wisconsin, Madison. He can be reached by org jforward wisbar email or by phone at (608) 250-6161.
Knick owned 90 acres within the township, including a small family graveyard. The township said Knick, under the ordinance, must provide the public with open access to the cemetery during daylight hours. In state court, Knick filed an action for injunctive relief, arguing the ordinance was a regulatory “taking” of her private property.
She did not file an inverse condemnation claim, which generally governs the process to recover just compensation when the government takes property for public use. The chief justice noted that every state besides Ohio has an inverse condemnation law.
The township withdrew the ordinance violation notice and agreed not to enforce the ordinance against Knick pending resolution of the state court proceedings.
Knick then filed an action in federal district court, alleging the ordinance violated her rights under the Takings Clause of the Fifth Amendment.
The district court dismissed the case under Williamson County because Knick had not pursued an inverse condemnation claim in state court. The Third Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed, and the U.S. Supreme Court agreed to hear the case.
In the majority opinion, Roberts discussed the “unanticipated consequences” of the Williamson County decision, 20 years after it was decided.
In San Remo Hotel, L.P. v. City & Cty. of San Francisco, Cal., 545 U.S. 323 (2005), the property owner brought an inverse condemnation claim in state court, but a subsequent federal action was barred under a full faith and credit statute, 28 U.S.C. section 1738, which requires a federal court to give preclusive effect to a state court decision.
“Fidelity to the Takings Clause and our cases construing it requires overruling Williamson County and restoring takings claims to the full-fledged constitutional status the Framers envisioned when they included the Clause among the other protections in the Bill of Rights,” Chief Justice Roberts wrote in the Knick decision.
“The Fifth Amendment right to full compensation arises at the time of the taking, regardless of post-taking remedies that may be available to the property owner.”
Dissenting and Other Views
Justice Elena Kagan dissented, joined by Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Stephen Breyer, and Sonia Sotomayor. They said the majority opinion “transgresses all usual principles of stare decisis” and its conclusion “has no basis in the Takings Clause.”
“Its consequence is to channel a mass of quintessentially local cases involving complex state-law issues into federal courts,” Justice Kagan wrote.
“Under cover of overruling ‘only’ a single decision, today's opinion smashes a hundred-plus years of legal rulings to smithereens,” Kagan said.
“When a theory requires declaring precedent after precedent after precedent wrong, that's a sign the theory itself may be wrong. The majority's theory is just that.”
Outside the court, other groups filed their positions on the case, noting it will have a wide-ranging impact on local government activities in the area of eminent domain.
“By requiring takings claimants to seek compensation under the state’s procedure for providing it, Williamson County protects those governments from the typically higher costs of litigating challenges to police-power regulation in federal courts,” wrote counsel for the National Governors Association, in an amicus brief.
“It also ensures that those challenges are heard in state courts, which have greater knowledge of and experience with the state law issues they present.”
In another amicus brief, the District of Columbia and 17 states – including Indiana, Iowa, and Minnesota – said the Court should uphold the Williamson County decision.
Overruling Williamson County, the brief states, “would undercut state primacy in core areas of property law and state and local regulation and limit States’ ability to enforce their own restrictions on state or local regulatory action. It would force the federal courts to prematurely entertain takings claims based on the federal constitution and effectively act as super boards of zoning appeals addressing uniquely state law issues.”
Still, other groups, in amicus briefs, supported overruling Williamson County and allowing property owners to seek immediate redress in federal court.
“A requirement that an individual litigate his rights in private property, rights protected by the federal constitution, in state court simply ignores the text and history of the Constitution,” wrote counsel for The Center for Constitutional Jurisprudence.
Miriam Seifter, writing for SCOTUSblog, said “the Knick opinion is a win for those who lamented the difficulty local takings plaintiffs faced in accessing federal courts.”
She also said “the opinion provides another round of debate within the court about the meaning of stare decisis, now and going forward.”
You Might also be Interested in …
Condemnation Law and Practice in Wisconsin (2d ed. 2018). This book, published by State Bar of Wisconsin PINNACLE®, is the most comprehensive resource available on the condemnation process, start to finish. Topics include: public policy behind condemnation; procedural details; costs and compensation; parties’ rights; remedial options for those affected by condemnation.