The Fifth Amendment to our federal Constitution provides that private property shall not be taken for public use without just compensation. An important Takings Clause decision, with roots here in Pennsylvania, is pending at the United States Supreme Court. In this fall’s term, the Court may hear argument in Knick v. Township of Scott to determine the extent to which a landowner must pursue state remedies related to the taking of land before pursuing constitutional claims in federal court.
In 2012, Scott Township, Lackawanna County enacted an ordinance authorizing municipal officials to enter upon any property to investigate the possible existence and location of burial grounds, and requiring that any cemetery on private land be open to the public during daylight hours. The Township’s Code Enforcement Officer entered Rose Mary Knick’s property without an administrative warrant, and cited her for violating the public-access requirement. Ms. Knick sought an injunction and declaratory relief in state court, but did not seek just compensation, as she is permitted to do, under Pennsylvania’s Eminent Domain Code. Her state court case was, ultimately, dismissed.
Ms. Knick then filed suit in federal court alleging, among other things, that the Township took her property without just compensation in violation of the Takings Clause. The federal trial court dismissed her case because she had not exhausted her state-law just compensation remedies under the Eminent Domain Code. The Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit affirmed. The District and Circuit Courts based their decisions on a 1985 U.S. Supreme Court opinion, Williamson County Regional Planning Commission v. Hamilton Bank, 473 U.S. 172, where it held that, if a state provides an adequate procedure for seeking just compensation, a property owner cannot claim a violation of the Takings Clause in federal court until he or she has used that procedure and been denied just compensation. Williamson County’s critics assert that it sets a number of procedural traps which deny landowners the ability to have a federal court determine the merits of a Takings Clause claim.
The U.S. Supreme Court has agreed to hear Ms. Knick’s appeal, and will reconsider Williamson County. Overruling Williamson County would simplify and expedite landowners’ access to federal courts for resolution of their Takings Clause claims. Stay tuned, and please contact us at (215) 661-0400 to discuss the resolution of any condemnation/takings issues which you may be encountering.