What Happens When The Government Effectively Takes The Farm And Doesn’t Want To Pay For It?

Arnzen, Tyler - Headshot

This post was written by Associate Editor, Tyler Arnzen.  The views and opinions expressed herein are those of author alone.

The Fifth Amendment of the Constitution provides that no person shall be “deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor shall private property be taken for public use, without just compensation.”[1] This language is partially mirrored in and is made applicable to the individual states in the Fourteenth Amendment.[2] Based upon this, an aggrieved individual should have the right to sue a state, in federal court, whenever an uncompensated taking of his or her property has occurred. This ensures that he or she is compensated for the injury. Unfortunately, it is far from as easy, as one particular individual, Rose Mary Knick, learned.

The Township of Scott in Lackawanna County, Pennsylvania enacted an ordinance requiring all cemeteries, both public and private, to be open to the public during daylight hours and granted Code Enforcement Officers the right to enter private land to determine if a cemetery existed on the property.[3] One such Code Enforcement Officer entered Ms. Knick’s land and determined that an old gravesite existed on the property.[4] He immediately issued her with a violation and fine for not allowing people onto her property as required by the town ordinance.[5] Ms. Knick brought the issue up with the County Court of Common Pleas but the court refused to issue a ruling on the matter, stating that it was the improper venue to hear the case.[6] She then went to the United States District Court for the Middle District of Pennsylvania where her case was dismissed for her failure to exhaust all state remedies.[7] The issue of exhaustion of state remedies has since been advanced through the Third Circuit Court of Appeals up to the Supreme Court where it has been thoroughly briefed and has twice been argued before the Court.[8]

The issue now before the Supreme Court has to do with the necessity of exhausting all state remedies before the case can be brought to federal court.[9] This, in essence, creates an additional requirement on top of the traditional ripeness requirement for a claim. The current requirement, announced in Williamson County Regional Planning Comm’n v. Hamilton Bank of Johnson City, is that the state must make a final ruling on whether a regulation has affected a taking of a property interest before the case can be brought to federal court.[10] Essentially, the aggrieved party must first exhaust all potential remedies at the state level before they can ever have their claim considered in federal court.

Unfortunately, this leads to the underlying claim often being barred from ever being heard in federal court because of claim preclusion resulting from the full faith and credit clause of the United States Constitution.[11] This issue of claim preclusion has been brought before the Supreme Court in San Remo Hotel, L.P. v. City and County of San Francisco, but the Court has refused to create an exception to the requirement.[12] This has effectively slammed the doors of the federal courts on property owners who have tried to gain admittance by following the Court’s ruling in Williamson.

While certain justices have openly questioned the existing exhaustion requirement this is the first case where the facts readily call for a revocation of the doctrine.[13] A revocation would be a monumental change to existing property law regarding condemnation claims, however, it would fit nicely with how other claims involving Constitutional violations are typically handled. Claims of Constitutional violations are often brought under 42 U.S.C. 1983 which has no innate requirement that the possible state remedies be exhausted before the claim can be pursued in Federal Court.[14] If a claim such as Ms. Knick’s were capable of being brought under 42 U.S.C. 1983 she would be able to immediately go to a federal court to have the issue considered. This differs from the current process of winding her way through the state system in an often expensive battle before she has the opportunity to file in federal court. This assumes, of course, that her claim is not precluded by the very act of going through the state system. This change would save litigants considerable time and cost in pursuing compensation which is guaranteed to them under the Constitution if a taking has occurred.[15]

Since the case has been extensively briefed by both parties, numerous amici curiae briefs have been filed, and the case has been argued twice, a revocation of the exhaustion requirement may be imminent. If a change does occur then Ms. Knick will have won a victory that will benefit property owners across the country.

[1] U.S. Const. amend. V.

[2] U.S. Const. amend. XIV, § 1.

[3] Knick v. Twp. of Scott, 862 F.3d 310, 314-15 (2017).

[4] Id. at 315

[5] Id.

[6] Id.

[7] Id.

[8] Knick v. Township of Scott, Pennsylvania, SCOTUSblog (Mar. 19, 2019, 8:25 PM), https://www.scotusblog.com/case-files/cases/knick-v-township-scott-pennsylvania/.

[9] Petition for a Writ of Certiorari at i, Knick v. Twp. of Scott, No. 17-647 (U.S. October 31, 2017); Knick v. Twp. of Scott, No. 17-647, 138 S. Ct. 1262 (Mar. 5, 2018) (certiorari granted as to question 1).

[10] Williamson County Reg’l Planning Comm’n v. Hamilton Bank, 473 U.S. 172, 197 (1985).

[11] U.S. Const. art. IV, §1.

[12] San Remo Hotel, L.P. v. City & County of San Francisco, 545 U.S. 323 (2005).

[13] See Arrigoni Enters., LLC v. Town of Durham, 136 S. Ct. 1409 (2016) (Thomas, J. dissenting from denial of certiorari).

[14] 42 U.S.C. §1983 (2019).

[15] U.S. Const. amend. V.

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