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Important U.S. Supreme Court Decision on Regulatory Takings

The U.S. Supreme Court is finishing up its term, getting ready for its summer break, so its decisions are coming fast now. On June 21, 2019, the U.S. Supreme Court issued a surprising decision affecting regulatory takings, overruling Williamson County Regional Planning Comm’n v. Hamilton Bank of Johnson City. The case, Knick v. Township of Scott, was a close 5-4 decision, with Chief Justice John Roberts writing for the majority.

Since 1985, when Williamson was decided, and then reinforced in 2005 with the Supreme Court’s decision in San Remo Hotel, L.P. v. City and County of San Francisco, 545 U.S. 323, it has been essentially impossible to have a regulatory takings claim heard, let alone won. While a takings claim can be asserted under a federal civil rights law (42 U.S.C. § 1983), which would normally give a plaintiff the ability to go to federal court to pursue its cause of action, Williamson imposed a “ripeness” requirement, making the plaintiff first ask for compensation from the state before it could pursue its federal takings claim.

Because the avenue for asking for compensation from the state is an inverse condemnation suit, and because the Court in San Remo said the findings and conclusions of the state proceedings were essentially final (res judicata) for the civil rights claim, the result was that a state agency or court made findings that killed any takings claim, without that claim ever being heard. Chief Justice Roberts discussed that problem in his decision last Friday, when the Court overruled Williamson.

With Williamson overruled, a plaintiff can go directly to federal court. The opinion from Chief Justice Roberts is also encouraging for those supporting takings rights as a general matter, because Chief Justice Roberts said: “Fidelity to the Takings Clause and our cases construing it requires overruling Williamson County and restoring takings claims to the full-fledged constitutional status the Framers envisioned when they included the Clause among the other protections in the Bill of Rights.”

Knick doesn’t change the substance of takings law; it will still be very hard to prove a regulatory taking. But the immediate takeaway, at least in Maine, is if you have a regulatory taking claim, file your claim in federal court as a civil rights claim. Maine Law Court precedent suggests it will never find that a regulatory taking has occurred, and perhaps the U.S. District Court judges in Maine will take a similarly narrow view. But in the wake of Knick there is at least some hope. So if a regulatory action significantly diminishes the value of your property, this decision removes one large impediment to pursuing your constitutional claim.

©2019 Pierce Atwood LLP. All rights reserved.

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About this Author

Cathy Connors Pierce Atwood Law Firm Appellate Attorney
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Cathy Connors is an appellate lawyer, handling civil and criminal litigation matters in federal and state courts, as well as petitions for review of administrative decisions. Cathy has argued more than 100 appeals, primarily in the United States Courts of Appeals and the Maine Supreme Judicial Court. Cathy also leads Pierce Atwood's partnership with the Gay & Lesbian Advocates & Defenders (GLAD) and filed an amici brief in the United States Supreme Court on behalf of 23 historians and the American Historians Association in support of striking down the Defense of...

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Matthew D. Manahan, Pierce Atwood LLP, Environmental lawyer
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Since 1989 Matt Manahan has worked closely with businesses to find innovative solutions to the environmental law issues they face. He provides strategic counsel in regulatory, legislative, and judicial proceedings involving a broad range of environmental and land use issues, including those relating to energy project development, transfer and development of contaminated property, water use, energy, and Native American regulatory claims.

Matt is adept at stakeholder negotiations, including with state and federal regulators, that are a necessary part of large development permitting matters, including especially energy and commercial development projects. Matt appears before and works with the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission and state and federal environmental, fish and wildlife, and conservation agencies, as well as numerous municipal planning boards and zoning boards of appeals.

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