US Supreme Court in Knick v. Township of Scott Opens Federal Court Doors for Takings Cases

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Author: Luke Wake

Luke Wake is an attorney for the National Federation of Independent Business Small Business Legal Center—a Bona Law client. Luke and Jarod Bona have also published two law review articles together, on both takings and antitrust law. Luke is one of this nation’s leading experts on takings law. You can read some of his academic articles here.

The U.S. Supreme Court recently issued an important decision for property owners across the country. Chief Justice Roberts wrote the opinion in Knick v. Township of Scott, which held that landowners are entitled to pursue just compensation in federal court when local or state law has effected a taking of private property. This is major development because takings cases were previously relegated to state courts where judges are sometimes viewed as hostile toward claims seeking compensation over local land use laws.

Knick explicitly overturned Williamson County Regional Planning Board v. Hamilton Bank from 1985. In Williamson County the Supreme Court ruled that one cannot bring a takings claim in federal court until after litigating in state court. But Williamson County was a trap for landowners because, in reality, there is no path to federal court after you have litigated a case in state court. Well established doctrines prevent a litigant from re-litigating issues that have already been decided. The Supreme Court ultimately made this clear in San Remo Hotel v. City and County of San Francisco, where the Court held that there was no way to preserve a federal takings claim if an owner seeks just compensation in state court.

Of course, landowners have always been allowed to pursue just compensation against the federal government for a taking. Those claims must generally be brought in the Court of Federal Claims in Washington D.C. But for claims seeking compensation against state or local restrictions, litigants were stuck in state court. And worse, some government defendants had played games with Williamson County—seeking to remove cases filed in state court to a federal forum, and then seeking dismissal on the ground that the claim had not been litigating in state court. Not all courts allowed those sort of shenanigans, but some did.

In overturning Williamson County, the Knick decision has made clear that property owners may vindicate their federal rights in federal court. That was already true with regard to every other federal claim one might have had against state or local actors. Enacted in the 19th Century by the Reconstruction Congress, U.S.C. Section 1983 has long provided that litigants may sue for a violation of federal rights in federal court. Moreover, if a litigant is successful in litigating a 1983 claim, they are entitled to attorney’s fees—which makes it easier for citizens to hold government accountable.

But Williamson County had assumed that special rules precluded takings claimants from proceeding under Section 1983. The Takings Clause prohibits the taking of private property without payment of just compensation; however, Williamson County concluded that this should be understood as requiring a litigant to pursue compensation in state court in order to have a ripened claim. Yet as groups like Cato Institute and National Federation of Independent Business Small Business Legal Center argued as amicus curiae before the U.S. Supreme Court in Knick, this sort of logic is perverse because it would also preclude litigants from vindicating other constitutional rights. The Supreme Court would never require a litigant to sue in state court in order to ripen a claim alleging that local or state actors had violated the Equal Protection Clause or the First Amendment. So why was the Takings Clause singled-out for special ripening rules?

Ultimately, Chief Justice Roberts concluded that the Court was confused in Williamson County because there really was no good reason for the “state litigation rule.” The constitutional text provides a straightforward guarantee against uncompensated takings—meaning that a litigant is entitled to pursue just compensation in court (either federal or state) if there is no administrative procedure for obtaining compensation owed. So, for example, if a local ordinance precludes all development opportunity without authorizing payment to affected owners, an owner is allowed to proceed in federal court.

If you are affected by heavy-handed restrictions limiting permissible uses of your property, it’s possible that you may have a takings claim. For example, the California Coastal Commission is notorious for enforcing rules severely limiting development opportunities. While most restrictions will survive constitutional challenge, a regulatory taking occurs if the restriction goes too far in abrogating your property rights. One may have a claim if government denies all development opportunities. But if a property is already partially developed (or if the government would permit some modest development) takings claims are assessed under the Penn Central balancing test, which considers (1) the economic impact; (2) the owner’s reasonable investment-backed expectations, and; (3) the character of the government’s conduct.

Importantly, the Supreme Court’s decision in Knick still preserves ripening requirements that generally require a permit denial before one may bring a claim for just compensation. This is because a takings claim is not considered ripe until it is clear the extent to which the government will allow development. In other words, one must generally engage the permitting process until there is a final decision demonstrating what level of development will be permitted. Because this process can be complicated, it’s highly advisable to work with a trusted attorney either to secure necessary permits, or to potentially set-up a regulatory takings claim.