Takings Claims May Proceed Directly to Federal Court

Read the full decision: Knick v. Township of Scott

Supreme Court reverses decades old precedent, opening federal courts for plaintiffs to pursue Fifth Amendment takings claims.

The Supreme Court ruled that property owners may immediately avail themselves of federal court to pursue Fifth Amendment claims that the government has taken their private property without just compensation, overturning 34 year old precedent which barred access to federal court until state court remedies were exhausted.

Petitioner, Rose Knick, a rural Pennsylvania farmer, had her property rights violated in 2013 when officials from the Township of Scott, Pennsylvania came onto her farm without her permission and declared part of her property a gravesite that needs to be open to the public. Knick owns a 90 acre farm where she maintains a small home and uses the rest of the property as a grazing area for horses and other farm animals. The property also includes a small graveyard where the ancestors of Knick’s are buried. These family cemeteries are fairly common in Pennsylvania and “backyard burials” have long been permitted.

In December 2012, Defendant, Township of Scott, passed an ordinance requiring “all cemeteries… be kept open and accessible to the general public during daylight hours.” The ordinance required Knick to open her private property to the public and maintain the trees and grass regularly as if it were a public cemetery. When a code enforcement officer inspected Knick’s farm in 2013 he discovered unmarked gravestones and notified her that she was violating the ordinance. If Knick did not abide by the ordinance she would face fines of $300 to $1,200.

Knick responded by seeking declaratory and injunctive relief in state court on the ground that the ordinance was a taking of her property, entitling her to just compensation under the Fifth Amendment of the U.S Constitution. In response to the suit, the Township withdrew the violation notice and halted the enforcement of the ordinance during the proceedings. The state court did not rule on Knick’s request for declaratory relief because she could not demonstrate the irreparable harm caused to her by the ordinance without the ordinance being enforced.

Knick then filed an action in Federal Court alleging that the ordinance violated the Takings Clause of the Fifth Amendment. However, her claims were dismissed under the Williamson County holding from 34 years ago. Williamson County held that constitutional property rights claims against local governments must be filed in state court. This left Knick in a predicament, the state court could not hear her case until she was actually harmed by the ordinance and the Federal court would not hear her case until the state court heard it first.

Knick then petitioned to the Supreme Court which overturned the Williamson County holding and allowed property owners to file their constitutional property rights claims against local governments in Federal Courts.