Private property owners of Pennsylvania rejoice. You can once again bring a claim in federal court if you believe the state or local government has committed a “taking” of your property without providing compensation.
A “taking” occurs when your local or state government seizes your private property for public use. This can occur if the government physically seizes your property for public use, or if they limit your use of the property in such a way that it is equivalent to a physical taking. If the government takes your private property, it must in turn provide you with “just compensation”, which is essentially the market value of the property taken.
Since a Supreme Court decision in 1985, property owners were required to exhaust all state remedies when bringing actions for governmental takings before they could turn to the federal courts for relief. However, following such a procedure would effectively prevent a property owner from bringing their claim in federal court if they were unsuccessful at the state level.
When a state court makes a decision, the Full Faith and Credit Clause of the U.S. Constitution requires the federal court to recognize that decision. If a property owner wanted to bring a claim for compensation in a government taking, the state court could dismiss the claim or rule against the property owner. Since the state court made its decision, the property owner could not seek relief elsewhere because the federal courts had to recognize the state decision.
Bringing takings claims to federal court can be more favorable to property owners than bringing the same claims to a state court. State courts might be more biased in favor of local government, and that bias may influence a ruling against the property owner.
All of that changed half-way through this year when the U.S. Supreme Court decided that property owners could now bring takings claims directly to federal court without first having to exhaust state court options.
In Knick v. Township of Scott, Pennsylvania resident Rose Mary Knick sought compensation after she believed her local township committed a taking of her private property. Scott Township passed an ordinance requiring Knick to keep her property open and accessible to the general public during daylight hours so that they could access an old family cemetery on her land. The state court declined to rule on her claim since the township withdrew its ordinance, so she subsequently filed an action in federal court. The district court dismissed her claim under the (now) overruled law that required property owners to seek relief in state court first.
This created quite a conundrum for Knick, since the state had already refused to rule on her state claim. She appealed the district court’s dismissal, and the Third Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed the decision for the same reasons. After, the U.S. Supreme Court granted a review of Knick’s federal claim.
In a 5-4 decision, the Supreme Court held in favor of Knick, allowing her and other property owners to bring takings claims directly to federal court without first having to exhaust state remedies. Chief Justice John Roberts, writing for the court, stated that “the state-litigation requirement imposes an unjustifiable burden on takings plaintiffs, conflicts with the rest of our takings jurisprudence, and must be overruled.”
The Supreme Court decision in Knick v. Twp. of Scott marks a clear victory for property owners of Pennsylvania. If you believe your local or state government has committed a “taking” of your property without providing just compensation, or you have concerns about any other matter involving property rights and real estate issues, contact the law offices of Dethlefs Pykosh & Murphy for a free consultation. We are a full-service firm covering a wide range of practice areas with experienced attorneys.
By Aaron Scheibelhut