In Knick, Rose Mary Knick, a resident of Scott Township, Lackawanna County, Pennsylvania, challenged a township ordinance that permitted others to access her property, without her consent, at certain times of the day because there was a cemetery located thereon. Knick originally brought suit in state court, seeking a declaration that the ordinance effected a taking of her property. Notably, Knick did not seek compensation by explicitly bringing an inverse condemnation claim, which is a state cause of action against a governmental defendant to recover the value of property which has been taken by the governmental defendant.
Knick eventually filed a claim in federal district court under 42 U.S.C. 1983 (Section 1983), alleging a Fifth Amendment takings claim. The federal district court dismissed Knick’s action based on the case of Williamson County Regional Planning Commission 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 Section 1983. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit affirmed, and Knick appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court.
In a 5-4 decision, the Supreme Court, in a majority opinion authored by Chief Justice John Roberts (and joined by Justices Samuel Alito, Neil Gorusch, Brett Kavanaugh andClarence Thomas), overturned Williamson, holding that a property owner claiming a regulatory taking by state action need not first seek compensation in state court; rather, it is the right of a landowner to seek relief in the federal courts in the first instance.
To get to this conclusion, the majority in Knick focused on when a constitutional violation of the takings clause occurs. The majority concluded that a constitutional violation occurs whenever a landowner is deprived of his property and compensation is not made either simultaneously with, or prior to, the government’s occupation of the land. The fact that a mechanism may be in place to allow the landowner to receive compensation at a later point in time does not change the fact that the government’s action at the time of the taking was improper because no payment was made.
The court ultimately concluded that because the constitutional violation exists at the moment the uncompensated taking occurs, the remedy for the constitutional violation must also be available at that moment. Therefore, a landowner has the right to bring a claim under Section 1983 at the moment an uncompensated taking of his land occurs. He need not pursue in the first instance a state law remedy that may ultimately provide compensation.
In reviewing Williamson and its progeny, the majority noted that such a holding does not align with the unequivocal language of the Fifth Amendment: “Nor 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.” The court had additional strong language for the Williamson decision, noting that it relegated the takings clause “to the status of a poor relation among the provisions of the Bill of Rights,” since other claims of constitutional violations are immediately actionable. Thus, a Fifth Amendment takings clause 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.
Indeed, the court explicitly overturned Williamson, holding that stare decisis does not require that Williamson remain intact. Indeed, the court stated that: “Williamson was not just wrong. Its reasoning was exceptionally ill founded and conflicted with much of our takings jurisprudence.” Thus, in reviewing the factors of stare decisis, specifically the quality of the reasoning, the workability of the rule it established, its consistency with other related decisions, and reliance on the decisions, the court held that Williamson must be overturned.
So, what impact has been the impact of Knick on Pennsylvania courts to date? As of the date this article was prepared, Knick was cited a total of 54 times across the country, with three citations from the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania and one from the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Pennsylvania. Of those four citations, the most substantive review of Knick came in the case of Bonilla v. City of Allentown, which, interestingly, is not an eminent domain case. In Bonilla, a former police officer brought suit against the city of Allentown, alleging he was inappropriately denied a pension. The court originally dismissed Bonilla’s due process claims as premature because the pension proceedings were incomplete, and Bonilla filed multiple motions for reconsideration. In addition, Bonilla filed a motion to certify the issue for interlocutory appeal, citing Knick for the proposition that Bonilla was not required to exhaust his rights in the pension process, but rather could go straight to federal court. After a brief recap of the factual background in Knick, the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania denied the request for interlocutory appeal, making it quite clear that the court viewed Knick as a takings case only, and is not appropriately cited in other contexts.
While Knick is undoubtedly a Fifth Amendment takings clause case at its core, it certainly discusses constitutional principles that could theoretically be applied to other cases. It will be interesting to see if other courts follow the Eastern District’s lead and confine Knick to takings cases, or if Knick will be construed to be broader sweeping.
Dana Chilson, a member with McNees Wallace & Nurick, is the chair of the firm’s insurance group, as well as a member of the litigation, financial services, public finance and government services and injunction groups. She primarily focuses her practice on representing commercial and business clients in complex contract challenges and business disputes. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Kandice Hull, a member of the firm, she is chair of the litigation group and leads the eminent domain practice. Contact her at email@example.com.