Knick v. Twp. of Scott, Pennsylvania (2019): SCOTUS Reverses Course on Williamson, Ending the “San Remo Preclusion Trap” for State Court Takings Cases


Knick v. Township of Scott, Pennsylvania resolves a vein of takings jurisprudence that first required a property owner to adjudicate just compensation for a takings claim under the federal Constitution in state law court, but then denied any federal relief to the unsuccessful state court litigant.

The Knick court overturned Williamson Cty. Reg’l Planning Comm’n v. Hamilton Bank of Johnson City (1985) 473 U.S. 172, which reviewed a federal takings lawsuit, where an owner sought just compensation for a county’s application of its current zoning ordinance to a developers plan, which was submitted and approved under a previous one that allowed greater density. The Supreme Court reversed the jury’s award on the basis that the developer’s claim was premature. The Court held that the owner should first obtain a final decision about the application of the zoning ordinance to the property (and the measure of just compensation) via the state court’s inverse condemnation procedure.

Two decades later, the Supreme Court reviewed this procedure in practice. San Remo Hotel, L.P. v. City and County of San Francisco (2005) 545 U. S. 323 reviewed the lawsuit by the owner of the San Remo Hotel, comprised of 62 units that the city erroneously classified as residential units based on a clerical error in a required filing. San Francisco’s Hotel Conversion ordinance required city approval to change the use back to short-term/transient occupancy, which it conditioned upon either building new dwelling units, rehabilitating old ones, or paying an in lieu fee. The city approved the conversion, but required a $567,000.00 fee.

The owner initially filed in state court, seeking a writ of mandate on the determination. The parties then stipulated to stay the case while the owner sought review of the takings claim in federal court. However the owner then asked the federal court to abstain on the basis that ripeness of the federal claim depended on adjudicating the state law mandamus claim (citing Williamson and directing the owner to bring a state court inverse condemnation claim). The 9th Circuit opinion directed the owner to reserve in state court the ability to pursue the takings claim in federal court, which the owner attempted to do.

However, the California Supreme Court decision analyzed the state law claims under the same standard that applied to a Fifth Amendment takings analysis, upholding the Hotel Conversion Ordinance. Then, instead of taking a writ from the California Supreme Court to the United States Supreme Court, the owner amended its federal court complaint. The District Court applied the Full Faith and Credit clause to the state court case, dismissing the action The Supreme Court agreed, framing the issue as “whether federal courts may craft an exception to the full faith and credit statute, 28 U.S.C. § 1738, for claims brought under the Takings Clause of the Fifth Amendment”.

Knick v. Twp. of Scott, Pennsylvania reviewed Williamson as interpreted by San Remo, finding that the doctrine created a “Catch-22”: the takings plaintiff “cannot go to federal court without going to state court first; but if he goes to state court and loses, his claim will be barred in federal court. The federal claim dies aborning.”

Petitioner Rose Mary Knick owns land in Scott Township, Pennsylvania, which has an old family gravesite (common for that area). The Township enacted a law requiring that owners of gravesites keep them open to the public during the day. When the Township notified Knick that she was violating the ordinance, she sued for declaratory relief and an injunction in state court, on the basis that the ordinance constituted a taking. She did not seek compensation via an inverse condemnation proceeding.

The Township withdrew its notice, prompting the state court to decline ruling on Knick’s claim: no active enforcement meant no irreparable harm justifying equitable relief. She then filed in federal court. The District Court dismissed the takings claim, under Williamson, because Knick had not first pursued an inverse condemnation claim. The Third District Court of Appeal affirmed (reluctantly, relying on Williamson), and the Supreme Court granted certiorari to reconsider Williamson.

It found that, contrary to Williamson, a property owner has a ripe claim under the Takings Clause as soon as the government takes their property for public use without paying for it – not merely after the inverse condemnation suit. The availability of a state law procedure does not restrict the federal law claim.