• Third Circuit Reaffirms Ripeness Doctrine in Civil Rights Claim and Need to Exhaust State Remedies Before Pursuing a Fifth Amendment Takings Claim
  • August 30, 2017
  • In the matter of Knick v. Scott Township, et al., 2017 U.S. App. LEXIS 12052 (3d Cir. July 6, 2017), the plaintiff commenced a civil rights action against Scott Township, located in a rural part of Lackawanna County, Pennsylvania, and its Code Enforcement Officer for violations of, inter alia, the Fourth and Fifth Amendments. The plaintiff based her claims on the enactment of an ordinance by Scott Township referred to as the Ordinance Relating to the Operation and Maintenance of Cemeteries and Burial Places. The ordinance permits the township’s Code Enforcement Officer to enter onto private property situated within the township for the purpose of determining the existence of a cemetery or ancient burial ground on the property. The township enacted the ordinance to determine whether residents had unmaintained cemetery plots on their properties. In fact, the ordinance explicitly applies to both private and public cemeteries, and it requires cemetery “owners” to properly maintain and upkeep any cemetery.

    Following enactment of the ordinance, the Code Enforcement Officer entered onto the plaintiff’s property (open fields) without notice for the purpose of determining whether a cemetery plot existed on the property. After it was established that an ancient cemetery was present on the property, the plaintiff was cited, pursuant to the ordinance, for failing to maintain the cemetery area and failing to make it available and open to the public.

    The plaintiff initially brought an action in the Lackawanna County Court of Common Pleas seeking to enjoin the township from enforcing the ordinance via its citation power. Following a series of procedural issues, the state court matter was stayed. Thereafter, the plaintiff commenced her federal civil rights action in which she alleged that the ordinance on its face and as applied violated her Fourth Amendment due process rights. In addition, she attempted to advance a claim for the due process rights of others similarly situated. The plaintiff also sought damages under the Fifth Amendment arguing that the ordinance created a “taking” because it required her to keep her property open to the public and required her to maintain any and all cemetery plots or ancient burial grounds on the property. The District Court granted the defense motion to dismiss, finding that the due process claim failed because the plaintiff did not demonstrate that her Fourth Amendment rights were violated or that they would be immediately violated. She, therefore, lacked standing to bring a Fourth Amendment claim. With respect to her Fifth Amendment claim, relying on Williamson Cnty. Regional Planning Comm. v. Hamilton Bank of Johnson City, 473 U.S. 172 (1985), the District Court found the claim was not ripe because the plaintiff had failed to first seek just compensation via available state remedies.

    Following dismissal by the District Court, the plaintiff appealed to the United States Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit. In a precedential opinion, the Third Circuit affirmed the District Court decision and found Williamson County applicable to the plaintiff’s Fifth Amendment claim. The plaintiff had, according to the Third Circuit, failed to meet the two-prong requirements

    … the finality rule requires that the government has reached a final decision regarding application of the regulation to the property at issue…. Second, the plaintiff must seek and be denied just compensation using the state’s procedures, provided those procedures are adequate.

    The defense argued that the plaintiff’s failure to seek just compensation under the Pennsylvania Eminent Domain Code at the state-court level rendered her claims premature, i.e. not yet ripe for disposition via a federal civil rights claim. The Third Circuit agreed and affirmed the District Court’s dismissal of the plaintiff’s claims finding that she must first seek “just compensation” at the state court level. Failure to provide just compensation then, and only then, renders a Fifth Amendment claim ripe.

    The Third Circuit also considered whether facial claims are also exempt from the second prong of Williamson County, the exhaustion of state-law compensation remedies. The court reaffirmed its prior holding in County Concrete Corp. v. Town of Roxbury, 442 F.3d 159, 168 (3d Cir. 2006) that a facial just compensation takings claim does not relieve plaintiffs from the duty to seek, first, just compensation from the state.

    A plaintiff may be excused from the first prong of Williamson County depending on the type of taking alleged. If the taking occurred through an exercise of discretion, the plaintiff must demonstrate that the government reached a “final decision.” But if the taking occurred on the face of the statute, ordinance or regulation, that requirement does not apply. As for prong two, the plaintiff may be excused from exhausting state law remedies depending on the type of claim asserted and the form of relief appropriate for that claim.

    The holding essentially reaffirms the common law doctrine that an aggrieved property owner must, in most instances, first seek “just compensation” via the appropriate state-level channels, e.g., Board of Reviewers in an eminent domain action, before pursuing a Fifth Amendment takings claim in federal court. Municipalities should be cognizant of this holding when defending against Fifth Amendment actions.