Did you know the right to eminent domain goes as far back as the Magna Carta? Eminent domain is hardly new news, and as such recent game changing cases regarding the subject are few and far between.  The last major eminent domain case decided by the United States Supreme Court was Kelo v. the City of New London (2006), which held that an entity clothed with the power of eminent domain was permitted to acquire property merely to resell it to a private entity.  Kelo had an enormous impact on many states, and here in Pennsylvania the case spurred the adoption of the Property Rights Protection Act, which aimed at preventing a repeat of the events that lead to Kelo.  The recent decision of Knick v. Township of Scott is likely to have just as great of an impact on litigants.

In Knick, Mrs. Knick, a resident of Scott Township, Lackawanna County, challenged a Township ordinance that permitted others to access her property at certain times of the day because there was a cemetery located thereon.  Mrs. Knick brought suit in state court, seeking a declaration that the ordinance effected a taking of her property.  She likewise sought an injunction to prevent others from accessing her property and the Township from enforcing the ordinance while the court decided the issues.  Notably, Mrs. Knick did not seek compensation by explicitly bringing an inverse condemnation claim, which is a cause of action against a governmental defendant to recover the value of property which has been taken by the governmental defendant.

When the state court declined to rule on Mrs. Knick’s requests, Mrs. Knick then filed a claim in federal district court under 42 U.S.C. 1983, alleging a Fifth Amendment takings claim. The federal district court dismissed Mrs. Knick’s action based on the case of Williamson County Regional Planning Comm’n v. Hamilton Bank of Johnson City, a 1985 U.S. Supreme Court decision which held that property owners must seek just compensation under state law in state court before bringing a federal takings claim under §1983.  The Third Circuit affirmed, and Mrs. Knick sought reprieve from the United States Supreme Court.

In a 5-4 decision, the Supreme Court, in a majority opinion authored by Chief Justice Roberts, overturned Williamson, holding that a property owner aggrieved of an inverse condemnation need not first seek compensation in state court; rather, it is the right of a landowner to originally seek relief in the federal courts.

To get to this conclusion, the majority in Knick focused on when a taking occurs.  In reviewing Williamson and its progeny, the majority noted that such a holding does not align with the unequivocal language of the Fifth Amendment: “[N]or shall private property be taken for public use, without just compensation.”  The majority further noted that the Takings Clause does not say: “Nor shall private property be taken for public use, without an available procedure that will result in compensation.”   Thus, a Fifth Amendment Takings violation occurs the moment the property was acquired without payment, regardless of the availability of post-condemnation remedies.   It necessarily follows, then, that a landowner may file first (and only) in federal court to seek appropriate compensation for a taking.

The majority opinion and dissent in Knick spans 25 pages, addressing many complex issues of property law and stare decisis.  But while the analysis in Knick is complex in many respects, the takeaway is simple: landowners now have another arrow in their quiver regarding venue to seek compensation for inverse condemnations, and entities with the power of eminent domain are about to get much more familiar with federal court.

Municipalities and their solicitors will likely see more eminent domain claims proceed directly to federal court, where things generally move more quickly than in state court.  If you or your municipal clients have any questions or need assistance with any eminent domain matters, our Public Finance and Government Services Group can help.  Please reach out to Dana Chilson at 717-237-5457 or Kandice Hull at 717-237-5452.