On June 21, 2019, the Supreme Court of the United States issued its decision in Knick v. Township of Scott, Pennsylvania. The Knick decision alters the manner in which takings by local and state governments may be contested.
The Takings Clause of the Fifth Amendment of the United States Constitution states: “[N]or shall private property be taken for public use, without just compensation.” Prior to Knick, a Fifth Amendment takings claim could not be pursued in federal court until state court remedies were exhausted. Under the Knick decision, plaintiffs alleging that local governments have violated the Takings Clause may proceed directly in federal court, rather than first pursuing remedies in state court. By this decision, the Supreme Court overruled the state-litigation requirement established in Williamson County Regional Planning Comm’n v. Hamilton Bank of Johnson City, 105 S.Ct. 3108 (1985).
The dispute underlying the Knick decision involved a municipality’s enforcement of a local ordinance requiring the plaintiff-property owner to keep a small graveyard on her property open to the public during daytime hours. The property is a 90 acre tract of land that is site of the plaintiff’s home, a grazing area for horses and other farm animals and a small graveyard in which plaintiff’s ancestors are allegedly buried. In 2012, the township in which the property is located passed an ordinance requiring that “all cemeteries be kept open and accessible to the general public during daylight hours.”
In response, the plaintiff filed an action in federal district court seeking redress for a taking of her property without just compensation. The case was dismissed because plaintiff had not first sought compensation in a state court action. An intermediate appeals court affirmed this dismissal under an application of Williamson County.
In Williamson County, the Supreme Court held that a plaintiff whose property has been taken by a local government has not suffered a violation of Fifth Amendment rights, and thus cannot bring a federal takings claim in federal court, until compensation for the alleged taking has been sought in a state court action. The Court did so based upon its finding that “a claim that the application of government regulations affects a taking of a property interest is not ripe for review by the Federal courts until the government entity charged with implementing the regulations has reached a final decision regarding the application of the regulations to the property at issue.” Thus, it held a property owner has not suffered a Fifth Amendment takings violation until the owner has been unable to obtain just compensation through the procedures provided by the State for obtaining such relief. Further, the Court found that governments need not pay compensation at the time of the property deprivation as long as, at that time, they make available a “reasonable, certain, and adequate” mechanism for recovering such compensation after the fact.
In Knick, the Supreme Court overruled the Williamson County decision finding that the state-litigation requirement imposed an “unjustifiable burden” on takings plaintiffs and conflicted with the rest of the Court’s takings jurisprudence. The holding in Knick establishes a new rule in which plaintiffs may bring constitutional takings claims without first pursuing any sort of state lawsuit, even when state court actions addressing the underlying behavior are available.
Moving forward, takings claims may proceed directly in a federal forum, thus by-passing compensation relief that may be available through state-provided processes and legal claims. The Court has ruled that the right to compensation arises at the time of the taking, regardless of post-taking remedies that may be available to the property owner. However, the Supreme Court makes it clear that as long as just compensation remedies are available, injunctive relief will be foreclosed.