On June 21, 2019, the U.S. Supreme Court handed down its decision in Knick v. Township of Scott, 588 U.S. ____ (2019), a Takings Clause case in which it held that property owners need not exhaust state law just compensation remedies before bringing a federal constitutional claim in federal court under 42 U.S.C. § 1983.  Knick directly overturns Williamson County Regional Planning Commission v. Hamilton Bank of Johnson City, 473 U.S. 172 (1985), which held that a property owner whose property has been taken by a local government suffers no Fifth Amendment violation until a “state court has denied his claim for just compensation under state law.”

In 2012, Scott Township in 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.  A Township official entered Rose Mary Knick’s property without a warrant, and cited her for violating the public-access requirement.  She sought an injunction and declaratory relief in state court, but did not seek just compensation under our Eminent Domain Code.  The state court dismissed her case.  Ms. Knick then sued in federal court alleging that the Township took her property without just compensation, in violation of the Takings Clause.  The trial court, relying on Williamson County, dismissed her case since she had not exhausted her state-law just compensation remedies.  The Third Circuit affirmed, and the U.S. Supreme Court reversed.

Our Fifth Amendment’s Takings Clause provides that “private property [shall not] be taken for public use, without just compensation.”  The Knick majority reads this to say that a property owner has an actionable Takings Clause claim the moment the government takes property without paying for it.  The dissent reads it to say that there is no constitutional violation until the government fails to pay just compensation.

Of concern to the Knick majority was the “preclusion trap” created by Williamson County, and sprung by San Remo Hotel, L.P. v. City & County of San Francisco, 545 U.S. 323 (2005).  In San Remo, a property owner sought relief in state court under the state constitution, reserving a Fifth Amendment claim for federal court.  The state court denied the state law claim.  The federal court barred the subsequent federal claim under a federal full faith and credit statute, precluding the property owner from pursuing a Takings Clause claim in federal court.

The majority opinion is favorable to Takings Clause plaintiffs, who may now go directly to federal court if they wish.  Having this option is important to Pennsylvanians since, at this moment, our federal courts may be more open to a takings claim than our state judiciary.  Should you own property that has been the subject of a taking, and are considering legal action, you should contact us to analyze which forum best suits your case.