July 15, 2019

Supreme Court “Knicks” Decades of Precedent, Creating a Clear Path to Federal Court for Fifth Amendment Takings Claims


Mary Grace Rahm is an attorney at Clark Partington and a member of the firm’s Commercial Litigation department.  Her practices focuses on land use matters and business litigation.

Supreme Court “Knicks” Decades of Precedent, Creating a Clear Path to Federal Court for Fifth Amendment Takings Claims

On June 21, 2019, the United States Supreme Court issued its opinion in Knick v. Township of Scott, Pennsylvania in which it stood firmly in favor of allowing property owners to defend their constitutional rights in federal court. The Court’s opinion in Knick, eliminated certain well-established barriers that prevented a private property owner from bringing a takings claim under the Fifth Amendment against a state or local government in federal court.

The Fifth Amendment of the United States Constitution contains the Takings Clause, which provides that the government may not take private property “for public use, without just compensation.” U.S. Const. amend. V. The Supreme Court has explained the principle behind the Takings Clause, writing “[t]he Fifth Amendment’s guarantee that private property shall not be taken for a public use without just compensation was designed to bar Government from forcing some people alone to bear public burdens, which, in all fairness and justice, should be borne by the public as a whole.” Armstrong v. United States, 364 U.S. 40, 49 (1960).

Rose Mary Knick owns a ninety-acre farmstead in Scott Township, Pennsylvania. On this property, there is a small graveyard where ancestors of Knick’s neighbors are buried. Scott Township passed an ordinance requiring all cemeteries be open to the public during daylight hours and authorized certain code enforcement officers to “enter upon any property” to determine the existence and location of any cemetery. A Scott Township code enforcement officer learned of the small graveyard on Knick’s property and notified Knick that she was violating the ordinance by failing to keep the cemetery open to the public during the day. Knick responded by filing suit in Pennsylvania state court for declaratory and injunctive relief, claiming that the Scott Township ordinance constituted a taking of her property without just compensation. Thereafter, Scott Township withdrew its notice of violation against Knick and agreed to stay enforcement of the ordinance during the litigation. Nevertheless, the state court held that it could not rule on Knick’s takings claim without an ongoing enforcement action.

Accordingly, Knick filed an action under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 in federal court, alleging that the ordinance violated the Takings Clause of the Fifth Amendment. Section 1983 provides a cause of action in federal court against a municipality that, under color of state law, “subjects, or causes to be subjected, any citizen of the United States or other person within the jurisdiction thereof to the deprivation of any rights, privileges, or immunities secured by the Constitution….” 42 U.S. § 1983. The district court dismissed her claim under the Supreme Court’s 1985 case Williamson County Regional Planning Comm’n v. Hamilton Bank of Johnson City, and the appellate court affirmed.

The holding in Williamson County required property owners who had a Fifth Amendment takings claim to seek just compensation under state law in state court before bringing a federal takings claim under section 1983. 473 U.S. 172 (1985). The unanticipated consequence of this requirement was that a property owner who brought a claim in state court would—upon proceeding to federal court after the unsuccessful state court claim—have their federal claim barred as the full faith and credit statute precluded a plaintiff from re-litigating the issue in federal court. The Supreme Court described the effect of this state-litigation requirement as a Catch 22: a plaintiff cannot go to federal court without first going to state court, but if a plaintiff goes to state court and loses, her claim will be barred in federal court. For this reason, the primary issue in Knick, was whether the Williamson County state-litigation requirement should be overturned.

In a 5-4 decision, the Supreme Court held that “[f]idelity 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.” Further, the Court held that a property owner has a federal claim under section 1983 for violation of the Takings Clause as soon as the government takes her property without paying for it and a property owner may bring a Fifth Amendment claim—in federal court—at that time.

The Supreme Court’s holding in Knick can be considered a victory for all private property owners. The Knick opinion overturned thirty-four years of precedent and removed a decades-old roadblock that prevented property owners from obtaining relief in federal court. Plaintiffs may now bring takings claims against local governments in federal court, without first proceeding in state court. Knick may also have serious implications for local and state regulators. Where a property owner is determined to have a valid takings claim, the property owner is entitled to compensation. Under Knick, this compensation must consist of the total value of the property when it was taken, plus interest calculated from the time it was taken. The potential for a significant financial award should cause local land use regulators to be especially conscientious when creating and enforcing ordinances.

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