Should the Court reconsider the part of the Supreme Court’s Williamson County decision that requires property owners to exhaust state‑court remedies before litigating takings claims in federal courts?
This case asks the Supreme Court to revisit its decision in Williamson County Regional Planning Commission v. Hamilton Bank, which established a requirement that property owners must first exhaust state‑court remedies before their federal takings claims are ripe for litigation in federal court. The Township of Scott’s zoning ordinance requires that property owners whose property contains a cemetery must leave that property open to the public during daylight hours and allow state agents access to determine the existence and location of any property or to ensure compliance with the ordinance. Rose Mary Knick, a resident of the Township, sued the Township after receiving violation notices, arguing that the ordinance is a taking without just compensation. Knick further argues that Williamson County’s ripeness requirement is an unworkable standard that prevents plaintiffs from reasonably accessing such courts. The Township of Scott counters that Knick does not have a valid federal statutory claim because none of Knick’s federal rights were violated. That is, the Township argues, a state‑court remedy for just compensation existed, which Knick did not avail herself of. Further, it contends that Williamson County does not prevent litigants from accessing federal court because courts have flexibility in deciding if it is fair to hear a plaintiff’s claim. Homeowners, takings litigation, and access to federal forums are some of the considerations implicated in this case. This is because overruling Williamson County may allow future plaintiffs to bring their claims in the court of their choosing without insurmountable procedural obstacles barring their path.
Questions as Framed for the Court by the Parties
Whether the Court should reconsider the portion of Williamson County Regional Planning Commission v. Hamilton Bank, 473 U.S. 172, 194–96 (1985), requiring property owners to exhaust state court remedies to ripen federal takings claims, as suggested by Justices of this Court?
On December 20, 2012, Respondent Township of Scott, Pennsylvania (“Township”) enacted an ordinance relating to the “Operation and Maintenance of Cemeteries and Burial Places.” Knick v. Township of Scott at 3. The ordinance requires property owners whose property contains cemeteries to allow the public free, reasonable access to the cemeteries during the day. Id. at 4. Additionally, the ordinance permits the Township’s officers and agents to enter any property within the Township to determine if a cemetery exists on that property and to ensure compliance with the ordinance. Id. Any violations of the ordinance result in a $300 to $600 fine for each day that the violation exists. Id.
Carl S. Ferraro, a Township officer, entered Petitioner Rose Mary Knick’s land without an administrative warrant and identified certain stones on the land as grave markers. Id. at 4. Thereafter, Ferraro issued Knick a notice that she had violated the ordinance. Id.
On May 7, 2013, Knick sued in the Lackawanna County of Common Pleas, and sought a declaratory judgment and injunctive relief from the violation notice. Id. at 5. The case was ultimately dismissed, and, on October 31, 2013, the Township issued another violation against Knick. Id. She responded by filing a petition in the same court that asked the court to hold the Township in contempt. Id. Knick, however, never began inverse-condemnation proceedings against the Township during this time. Id.
Knick filed a subsequent action on November 20, 2014 in federal district court in Pennsylvania, seeking invalidation of the ordinance because, among other things, it constitutes a taking without just compensation. Id. Ultimately, the district court dismissed her lawsuit. Id. at 6. The district court relied on Williamson County and concluded that because Knick did not pursue inverse‑condemnation proceedings under Pennsylvania law, she had not exhausted her state‑law remedies and thus her takings claim was not ripe. Id. at 22–23.
Thereafter, Knick appealed to the United States Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit, arguing, among other things, that she did not need to pursue inverse‑condemnation proceedings because her facial takings claim was exempt from exhaustion. Id. Knick reasoned that the takings claim was exempt from exhaustion either because she satisfied Williamson’s requirements by unsuccessfully suing for declaratory and injunctive relief in state court or because Williamson County’s prudential requirements should be overlooked in the interests of efficiency. Id. The Third Circuit rejected her arguments, holding that because Knick’s rights were not in imminent danger of being violated, she lacked Article III standing, and because she did not exhaust her state‑law remedies, her takings claim was not ripe. Knick at 11, 31.
Knick petitioned the Supreme Court of the United States, which granted certiorari on March 5, 2018. Brief for Petitioner, Rose Mary Knick at 1. After the oral argument on October 3, 2018, the Court ordered reargument on whether a violation of the Fifth Amendment’s Just Compensation Clause should be judged by the actions of the government at the time of the taking or by the actions of a state court. See Supplemental Brief for Petitioner, Rose Mary Knick at 1; Supplemental Brief for Respondents, Township of Scott, Pennsylvania, et al. at 1; Brief for Petitioner at 38.
THE PROPER FUNCTION OF THE JUST COMPENSATION CLAUSE
Knick contends that Williamson County Regional Planning Commission v. Hamilton Bank’s state‑litigation requirement is logically flawed because it misconstrues the nature of the Fifth Amendment’s Just Compensation Clause. Brief for Petitioner, Rose Mary Knick at 33–34. Knick argues that the Just Compensation Clause supplies a remedy, not a right. Id. Specifically, Knick asserts that condemnation actions and inverse condemnation actions involve different issues and should not be conflated. Id. at 33, 34, 36. According to Knick, Williamson County’s reasoning only makes sense in condemnation actions, where the government acknowledges that a taking occurred, and the issue is what constitutes just compensation. Id. at 36. But in inverse‑condemnation actions like this one, Knick contends, the issue is whether the government’s action constitutes a taking, not whether the government supplied procedures for litigants to obtain just compensation. Id. at 34–35. Therefore, Knick maintains that Williamson County’s reasoning is flawed because it assumes that no right is violated if a “reasonable, certain and adequate provision for obtaining compensation” exists at the time of the taking. Id. at 35. In fact, Knick posits that Williamson County sidesteps the issue that gives rise to just compensation and essentially requires litigants to “try to collect a compensatory debt before there is entitlement to it.” Id. at 37.
Knick clarifies that her arguments concern when a plaintiff may assert a Takings Clause violation, not when the government violates the Takings Clause. See Supplemental Reply Brief for Petitioner, Rose Mary Knick at 1–2. Knick argues that Williamson County radically departs from the traditional understanding—established by a long line of precedent—that the government violates the Just Compensation clause as soon as it physically invades property without guaranteeing compensation. See Supplemental Brief for Petitioner, Rose Mary Knick at 4–5. Knick further posits that Williamson County departs from other precedent holding that plaintiffs do not have to exhaust state remedies before bringing a claim in federal courts under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 (“Section 1983”), which requires damages for a constitutional right violation. Id. at 6–7. Knick urges the Court to return to the pre-Williamson County finality rule, where the ripeness of a takings claim did not depend on whether litigants have exhausted state remedies, but rather depends on whether the government has caused concrete harm to private property interests. Id. at 40.
The Township of Scott disagrees and claims that Williamson County provides the proper legal standard. Brief for Respondents, Township of Scott, Pennsylvania, et al. at 21–22. The Township asserts that the Just Compensation Clause is not just a self-executing damages remedy, but rather confers a constitutional right to recover compensation if a taking occurs. Id. at 22–23. The Township reasons that without the Clause, the Fifth Amendment would outlaw condemnation actions entirely and threaten the “independent existence and perpetuity” of government. Id. The Township subsequently argues that Knick failed to establish a claim under Section 1983. Id. at 28–29. Because a mere taking of property is not a constitutional‑right violation if the government gives the property owner just compensation, the Township contends that Knick must allege that the government deprived her of the right to recover just compensation in order to establish a claim under Section 1983. Id. at 29, 34. The Township further contends that Knick did not plead a claim for just compensation under the Fourteenth Amendment, and the Court therefore should not entertain such a claim. Id. at 40–41. Besides, the Township maintains, no such claim exists because the Fourteenth Amendment creates a federal cause of action only if a state deprives litigants the right to recover just compensation. Id. at 41.
The Township further contends that Williamson County is consistent with precedent which held that the government did not violate the Just Compensation Clause if it had allowed a property owner to sue in courts for compensation through inverse-condemnation actions. See Supplemental Brief for Respondents, Township of Scott, Pennsylvania, et al. at 2, 5–6. Specifically, the Township argues that a state legislature is free to delegate the task of determining whether a taking of property has occurred to state courts because the Fifth and Fourteenth Amendments do not specify the proper decision-maker. Id. at 4. The Township also points to precedent that held that courts could decide on the government’s behalf whether a taking has occurred. Id. at 5. Moreover, the Township stresses that the issue concerns whether an inverse-condemnation action, in which a property owner sues the government for just compensation, comports with due process requirements because the Just Compensation Clause applies to the states through the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. Id. at 3, 6. And, according to the Township, the standard that courts apply in inverse-condemnation actions satisfy the due process requirements. Id. at 6.
ACCESS TO FEDERAL AND STATE COURTS
Knick claims that Williamson County’s state‑litigation requirement entirely prevents people from litigating takings claims in federal courts. Brief for Petitioner at 23. According to Knick, although the Supreme Court recognized that federal takings claims normally cannot be raised in federal courts after state‑court proceedings because of preclusion rules, the Court nevertheless refused to create exceptions from these preclusion rules, effectively barring federal takings claims in federal courts. Id. at 26. Knick asserts that this result is against Congress’s intent to provide a federal forum for federal civil rights claims under 28 U.S.C. § 1331 and 42 U.S.C. § 1983. Id. at 28. Knick believes that the effect of barring an entire class of constitutional plaintiffs from federal courts is unprecedented. Id. at 28. Furthermore, barring takings claims from federal courts, Knick maintains, also diminishes the status of federal courts with respect to state courts in the development of Fifth Amendment takings law and Fourteenth Amendment jurisprudence. Id. at 29, n.9.
According to Knick, Williamson’s state‑litigation requirement also hampers takings litigants’ access to state courts. Id. at 30. Knick asserts that litigants are forced to file Fifth Amendment takings claims in state court because they cannot file a Fifth Amendment takings claim in federal courts due to the state‑litigation requirement, and they cannot sue in federal courts after a failed state-law takings claim in state court due to preclusion rules. Id. Yet, Knick contends, because Fifth Amendment claim raises a federal question, this allows the government to remove the case from state to federal court, where the claim is unripe under Williamson County. Id. Although a few federal circuit courts have recently waived Williamson County’s mandate to dismiss takings claims after a defendant removes from state to federal courts, Knick urges that these few exceptions are not enough to cure the injustice and inefficiency Williamson County has brought. Id. at 32–33.
The Township opposes Knick’s contention that Williamson County prevents takings litigants from accessing federal courts because there are three ways that an inverse‑condemnation action could stay in federal court without a federal cause of action, consistent with Williamson County: (1) the government could be estopped from arguing that the federal court must await state court’s action; (2) the federal court could hold that the government denied litigant’s use of “established adjudicatory procedures” and thus violating the Fourteenth Amendment; and (3) the federal court could exercise supplemental jurisdiction over a state-law takings claim. Brief for Respondents at 38. The Township counters that Williamson County does not diminish the federal courts’ status with respect to state courts in the development of Fifth Amendment takings law because litigants can still invoke federal courts’ diversity or supplemental jurisdictions over state-law takings claims and because review of federal questions in state-court judgments is available in the Supreme Court. Id. at 46.
According to the Township, the preclusion effect under Williamson County, where a Section 1983 claim is “dead on arrival” in federal court after a state court judgment, is consistent with federalism principles. Id. at 46–47. The Township reasons that Congress is free to make exceptions to the preclusion rules, but they have not yet done so. Id. at 47. Besides, state courts are best suited to judge takings claims against local governments, according to the Township, because the issue of whether a taking occurred involves determination of state common law. Id. at 48. Furthermore, in determining what just compensation entails after a taking has occurred, state courts could utilize local procedures and involve knowledgeable local persons with experience in land valuation. Id. at 50. The Township maintains that the “time-honored Pennsylvania institution” of respecting the dead and the living “would be lost in a federal forum.” Id. at 11, 50.
STATE LAW CONSIDERATIONS AND THE BALANCE OF ACCESS TO A FEDERAL COURT
The Justice and Freedom Fund, in support of Knick, contends that Williamson County is inconsistent with providing a federal forum for federal claims through 42 U.S.C. § 1983. Brief of Justice and Freedom Fund as Amicus Curiae, in Support of Petitioners at 15; Williamson Cty. Planning v. Hamilton Bank. The Ohio Farmers agree and argue that, practically, the burden of proof in certain state courts is stricter than that in federal court. Brief of the Ohio Farm Bureau Federation (“OFBF”) as Amicus Curiae, in Support of Petitioner at 12. In fact, as an example of the harmful effects that Williamson County’s ripeness requirement has on an average property owner, Citizens Alliance et al. describe how at least one court has concluded that a monkey had Article III standing to bring its property claims in federal courts; Citizens Alliance argues that allowing a monkey straightforward access to a federal forum but “run[ning] owners through a pointless maze” harms property owners’ expectations. Brief of Amici Curiae Citizens’ Alliance for Property Rights Legal Fund and Inversecondemnation.com, in Support of Petitioner at 3–5. Furthermore, the San Remo Hotel et al. contends that the current ripeness requirement accords the Takings Clause less respect compared to other provisions of the Bill of Rights. Brief of San Remo Hotel, L.P., et al., in Support of Petitioner at 17–18. Indeed, Texas and Oklahoma agree, explaining that there is no reason why the Fifth Amendment should be treated differently compared to the First or Fourth Amendment. Brief for the States of Texas and Oklahoma as Amici Curiae (“Texas and Oklahoma”), in Support of Petitioner at 11.
The Township of Scott, on the other hand, contends that overturning Williamson County will allow plaintiffs to pick the forum of their choosing with regard to whether federal or state law is more favorable. Brief for Respondents, Township of Scott, Pennsylvania, et al. at 45. It further argues that Williamson County should not be overruled in order to preserve comity between the federal government and state governments. Id. at 47. Additionally, Federal Scholars claim that the consequences of takings cases do not impact the federal court system as much as they impact state and local governments, and they are therefore better served in state courts. Brief of Amici Curiae Takings and Federal Courts Scholars, in Support of Respondents at 6. In fact, they posit that overturning Williamson County will unduly burden the federal court system with added takings litigation. Id. at 9. Finally, California and several other states suggest that the state procedures that Williamson County encourages serve a key state interest because it allows state courts to ensure that local ordinances comply with state law, an area that state courts are more knowledgeable in than their federal counterparts. Brief of the States of California, et al., in Support of Respondents at 27.
PROCEDURAL TRICKERY IN TAKINGS LITIGATION?
Texas and Oklahoma, in support of Knick, argue that when litigants bring cases in state court to ripen their case to comply with Williamson County, the litigants run the risk of having federal courts give their state-court loss preclusive effect. Brief of Texas and Oklahoma at 10. In fact, Ohio Farmers contend that Williamson County’s ripeness requirement may force a plaintiff to simultaneously litigate in state court and federal court. Brief of OFBF at 9. The Ohio Farmers further contend that these procedural issues create prolonged litigation which add enormous costs and confusion¾deterring litigation. Id. at 17–19. Moreover, Congressman Steve King purports that statistics show that Williamson County has caused low‑income to middle‑class property owners to refrain from pursuing takings claims because of the significant expenses associated with pursuing a cause of action. Brief Amici Curiae of Congressman Steve King, in Support of Petitioner at 6. The United States likewise agrees that state inverse-condemnation claims should give plaintiffs a right of recourse in federal courts to counter the limitation on certain classes of takings claims and confusion in application in lower courts. Brief of Amicus Curiae United States, in Support of Vacatur at 31.
On the other hand, the National Governors Association et al. (“Association”), in support of the Township, argue that courts have in fact applied Williamson County in a flexible and just way. Brief of Amici National Governors Association, et al., in Support of Respondents at 6. Indeed, the Association contends that it is only when property owners attempt to “evade its clear rule” that Williamson County operates in the way that it did in the instant case. Id. at 7. Federal courts have ample discretion, the Association claims, to dispose of takings litigation on grounds other than Williamson County’s ripeness requirement, thus functionally sidestepping the potential of further state‑court litigation. Id. at 14. Moreover, the Association further argue that wholly or partly overruling Williamson County will trade a straightforward rule for an ad‑hoc standard that will be unpredictable and inconsistent among different courts. Id. at 31.
ADMINISTRABILITY OF TAKING VIOLATIONS WITHOUT FORMAL ADMITTANCE
Knick claims that courts should recognize unlawful takings if the government does not provide compensation—even when the government does not admit to such because such an omission could be purposeful. Supplemental Reply Brief for Petitioner, Rose Mary Knick at 2. Knick asserts that a standard to the contrary would place a risky burden upon property owners to file lawsuits that the government’s takings were unconstitutional. Id. Knick further suggests that it should be up to the local municipality or government agency to weigh or ignore constitutional concerns when implementing rules that affect property interests. Id.
The United States disagrees with Knick, positing that a nearly “infinite” number of ways that legislation can affect property interests would prove impractical for the federal government to determine the effects and institute condemnation proceedings. Supplemental Reply Brief United States, in Support of Vacatur at 5. Typically, the United States argues, this area of the law has been characterized by ad hoc, factualized inquiries into takings which are practicable in the courts. Id.
- Lisa Soronen, In Knick v. Township of Scott, Graveyards, Trespassing, and the U.S. Constitution, National League of Cities (May 7, 2018).
- Andrew McIntyre, High Court May Clarify Decades‑Old Procedural Takings Issue, Law360 (Mar. 13, 2018).
- Amy Howe, Busy Afternoon at the Supreme Court: Six Grants and One Reargument Order, But No Stay in Census Dispute, SCOTUSblog (Nov. 2, 2018).