Justia Real Estate & Property Law Opinion Summaries

Articles Posted in US Supreme Court
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Under the Natural Gas Act, to build an interstate pipeline, a natural gas company must obtain from the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) a certificate of "public convenience and necessity,” 15 U.S.C. 717f(e). A 1947 amendment, section 717f(h), authorized certificate holders to exercise the federal eminent domain power. FERC granted PennEast a certificate of public convenience and necessity for a 116-mile pipeline from Pennsylvania to New Jersey. Challenges to that authorization remain pending. PennEast sought to exercise the federal eminent domain power to obtain rights-of-way along the pipeline route, including land in which New Jersey asserts a property interest. New Jersey asserted sovereign immunity. The Third Circuit concluded that PennEast was not authorized to condemn New Jersey’s property.The Supreme Court reversed, first holding that New Jersey’s appeal is not a collateral attack on the FERC order. Section 717f(h) authorizes FERC certificate holders to condemn all necessary rights-of-way, whether owned by private parties or states, and is consistent with established federal government practice for the construction of infrastructure, whether by government or through a private company.States may be sued only in limited circumstances: where the state expressly consents; where Congress clearly abrogates the state’s immunity under the Fourteenth Amendment; or if it has implicitly agreed to suit in “the structure of the original Constitution.” The states implicitly consented to private condemnation suits when they ratified the Constitution, including the eminent domain power, which is inextricably intertwined with condemnation authority. Separating the two would diminish the federal eminent domain power, which the states may not do. View "PennEast Pipeline Co. v. New Jersey" on Justia Law

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Plaintiffs owned a tenancy-in-common interest in a multi-unit San Francisco residential building. Until 2013, San Francisco accepted only 200 applications annually for conversion of such arrangements into condominium ownership. A new program allowed owners to seek conversion subject to conditions, including that nonoccupant owners had to offer their existing tenants a lifetime lease. The plaintiffs and their co-owners obtained approval for conversion. The city refused the plaintiffs’ subsequent request that the city either excuse them from executing the lifetime lease or compensate them. The plaintiffs’ suit under 42 U.S.C. 1983 alleged that the lifetime-lease requirement was an unconstitutional regulatory taking. The district court rejected this claim, citing the Supreme Court’s “Williamson County” holding that certain takings actions are not “ripe” for federal resolution until the plaintiff seeks compensation through state procedures. While an appeal was pending, the Court repudiated that Williamson County requirement. The Ninth Circuit affirmed the dismissal, concluding that the plaintiffs had not satisfied the requirement of “finality.”The Supreme Court vacated. To establish “finality,” a plaintiff need only show that there is no question about how the regulations apply to the land in question. Here, the city’s position is clear: the plaintiffs must execute the lifetime lease or face an “enforcement action.” That position has inflicted a concrete injury. Once the government is committed to a position, the dispute is ripe for judicial resolution. Section 1983 guarantees a federal forum for claims of unconstitutional treatment by state officials. Exhaustion of state remedies is not a prerequisite. While a plaintiff’s failure to properly pursue administrative procedures may render a claim unripe if avenues remain for the government to clarify or change its decision, administrative missteps do not defeat ripeness once the government has adopted its final position. Ordinary finality is sufficient because the Fifth Amendment enjoys “full-fledged constitutional status.” View "Pakdel v. City and County of San Francisco" on Justia Law

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A California regulation mandates that agricultural employers allow union organizers onto their property for up to three hours per day, 120 days per year. Union organizers sought access to property owned by two California growers, who sought to enjoin enforcement of the access regulation. The Ninth Circuit affirmed the dismissal of the suit.The Supreme Court reversed. California’s access regulation constitutes a per se physical taking and the growers’ complaint states a claim for an uncompensated taking in violation of the Fifth and Fourteenth Amendments. When the government, rather than appropriating private property for itself or a third party, imposes regulations restricting an owner’s ability to use his own property, courts generally determine whether a taking has occurred by applying the “Penn Central” factors. When the government physically appropriates property, the flexible Penn Central analysis has no place. California’s access regulation appropriates a right to invade the growers’ property and therefore constitutes a per se physical taking. Rather than restraining the growers’ use of their own property, the regulation appropriates for the enjoyment of third parties (union organizers) the owners’ right to exclude. The right to exclude is “a fundamental element of the property right.” The duration of a physical appropriation bears only on the amount of compensation due. The California regulation is not transformed from a physical taking into a use restriction just because the access granted is restricted to union organizers, for a narrow purpose, and for a limited time.The Court distinguished restrictions on how a business generally open to the public may treat individuals on the premises; isolated physical invasions, not undertaken pursuant to a granted right of access; and requirements that property owners cede a right of access as a condition of receiving certain benefits. Government inspection regimes will generally not constitute takings. View "Cedar Point Nursery v. Hassid" on Justia Law

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Atlantic sought to construct a 604-mile natural gas pipeline from West Virginia to North Carolina, crossing 16 miles of land within the George Washington National Forest. Atlantic secured a special use permit from the U.S. Forest Service, obtaining a right-of-way for a 0.1-mile segment of pipe 600 feet below a portion of the Appalachian National Scenic Trail, which also crosses the National Forest. The Fourth Circuit vacated the permit.The Supreme Court reversed. The Department of the Interior’s assignment of responsibility for the Appalachian Trail to the National Park Service did not transform the Trail land into land within the National Park System that is not eligible for a pipeline lease. The Forest Service had the authority to issue the special use permit.Under 16 U.S.C. 521, the Forest Service has jurisdiction over the National Forest. The National Trails System Act, 16 U.S.C. 244(a), applies to the Appalachian Trail; the Secretary of the Interior has delegated to the National Park System the authority to enter into “rights-of-way” agreements for the Trail. The Leasing Act enables any “appropriate agency head” to grant “[r]ights-of-way through any Federal lands . . . for pipeline purposes,” 30 U.S.C. 185(a), except lands in the National Park System. The National Park System is administered by the Secretary of the Interior, through the National Park Service, 54 U.S.C. 100501. The Forest Service “right-of-way” agreements with the National Park Service for the Appalachian Trail did not convert National Forest “Federal lands” under the Leasing Act into “lands” within the “National Park System.” A right-of-way grant only nonpossessory rights of use. Although the federal government owns all lands involved, a right-of-way between two agencies grants only an easement, not jurisdiction over the land itself. View "United States Forest Service v. Cowpasture River Preservation Association" on Justia Law

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For nearly a century, the Anaconda Copper Smelter contaminated 300 square miles with arsenic and lead. For 35 years, the EPA has worked with the now-closed smelter’s current owner, Atlantic Richfield, to implement a cleanup plan. Landowners sued Atlantic Richfield in state court for common law nuisance, trespass, and strict liability, seeking restoration damages, which Montana law requires to be spent on property rehabilitation. The landowners’ proposed plan exceeds the measures found necessary to protect human health and the environment by EPA. Montana courts rejected an argument that the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act, 42 U.S.C. 9601, section 113, stripped them of jurisdiction. Section 113 states that no potentially responsible party (PRP) "may undertake any remedial action” at the site without EPA approval and provides federal courts with “exclusive original jurisdiction over all controversies arising under” the Act.The U.S. Supreme Court affirmed in part. The Act does not strip the Montana courts of jurisdiction over this lawsuit. The common law claims “arise under” Montana law, not under the Act. Section 113(b) deprives state courts of jurisdiction over cases “arising under” the Act while section 113(h) deprives federal courts of jurisdiction over certain “challenges” to remedial actions; section 113(h) does not broaden section 113(b).The Court vacated in part. The landowners are PRPs who need EPA approval to take remedial action. Section 107, the liability section, includes any “owner” of “a facility.” “Facility” is defined to include “any site or area where a hazardous substance has been deposited, stored, disposed of, or placed, or otherwise come to be located.” Because arsenic and lead are hazardous substances that have “come to be located” on the landowners’ properties, the landowners are PRPs. Even “innocent landowners," whose land has been contaminated by another, and who are shielded from liability by section 107(b)(3), may fall within the broad definitions of PRPs in sections 107(a)(1)–(4). Interpreting PRPs to include property owners reflects the objective of a single EPA-led cleanup effort rather than thousands of competing efforts. The EPA policy of not suing innocent owners does not alter the landowners’ status as PRPs. View "Atlantic Richfield Co. v. Christian" on Justia Law

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Scott Township passed an ordinance requiring that “[a]ll cemeteries . . . be kept open and accessible to the general public during daylight hours.” Knick, whose 90-acre rural property has a small family graveyard, was notified that she was violating the ordinance. Knick sought declaratory relief, arguing that the ordinance caused a taking of her property, but did not bring an inverse condemnation action. The Township withdrew the violation notice and stayed enforcement of the ordinance. The state court declined to rule on Knick’s suit. Knick filed a federal action under 42 U.S.C. 1983, alleging that the ordinance violated the Takings Clause. The Third Circuit affirmed the dismissal of her claim, citing Supreme Court precedent (Williamson County) that property owners must seek just compensation under state law in state court before bringing a federal claim under section 1983. The Supreme Court reversed. A government violates the Takings Clause when it takes property without compensation; a property owner may bring a Fifth Amendment claim under section 1983 at that time. The Court noted that two years after the Williamson County decision, it returned to its traditional understanding of the Fifth Amendment in deciding First English Evangelical Lutheran Church. A property owner acquires a right to compensation immediately upon an uncompensated taking because the taking itself violates the Fifth Amendment. The Court expressly overruled the state-litigation requirement as "poor reasoning" resulting from the circumstances in which the issue reached the Court. The requirement was unworkable in practice because the “preclusion trap” prevented takings plaintiffs from ever bringing their claims in federal court. There are no reliance interests on the state-litigation requirement. If post-taking compensation remedies are available, governments need not fear that federal courts will invalidate their regulations as unconstitutional. View "Knick v. Township of Scott" on Justia Law

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The Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act (ANILCA) set aside 104 million acres of federally-owned land for preservation, creating 10 new national parks, monuments, and preserves (units), 16 U.S.C. 3102(4). In establishing boundaries, Congress followed natural features rather than enclosing only federally-owned lands, sweeping in more than 18 million acres of state, Native, and private land, which could have become subject to many National Park Service rules, 54 U.S.C. 100751 (Organic Act). ANILCA Section 103(c) states that only “public lands,” defined as most federally-owned lands, waters, and associated interests, within any unit’s boundaries are “deemed” part of that unit and that no state, Native, or private lands “shall be subject to the regulations applicable solely to public lands within units." The Service may “acquire such lands,” after which it may administer the land as public lands within units.Sturgeon traveled by hovercraft up the Nation River within the boundaries of the Yukon-Charley Preserve unit. Park rangers informed him that the Service’s rules (36 CFR 2.17(e)) prohibit operating a hovercraft on navigable waters “located within [a park’s] boundaries.” That regulation, issued under the Service’s Organic Act authority, applies to parks nationwide without regard to the ownership of submerged lands, tidelands, or lowlands. The district court and the Ninth Circuit denied Sturgeon relief.A unanimous Supreme Court reversed. The Nation River is not public land under ANILCA. Running waters cannot be owned; under the Submerged Lands Act, Alaska, not the United States, holds “title to and ownership" of the lands beneath navigable waters, 43 U.S.C. 1311. Even if the United States has an “interest” in the River under the reserved-water-rights doctrine, the River itself would not be “public land.” Section 103(c) exempts non-public lands, including waters, from Park Service regulations, which apply “solely” to public lands within the units. View "Sturgeon v. Frost" on Justia Law

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The McCarthy law firm was hired to carry out a nonjudicial foreclosure on Obduskey’s Colorado home. Obduskey invoked the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act (FDCPA) provision, 15 U.S.C. 1692g(b), providing that if a consumer disputes the amount of a debt, a “debt collector” must “cease collection” until it “obtains verification of the debt” and mails a copy to the debtor. Instead, McCarthy initiated a nonjudicial foreclosure action.The Tenth Circuit and Supreme Court affirmed the dismissal of Obduskey’s suit, holding that McCarthy was not a “debt collector.” A business engaged in only nonjudicial foreclosure proceedings is not a “debt collector” under the FDCPA, except for the limited purpose of section 1692f(6). The FDCPA defines “debt collector” an “any person . . . in any business the principal purpose of which is the collection of any debts, or who regularly collects or attempts to collect, directly or indirectly, debts.” The limited-purpose definition states that “[f]or the purpose of section 1692f(6) . . . [the] term [debt collector] also includes any person . . . in any business the principal purpose of which is the enforcement of security interests.” McCarthy, in enforcing security interests, is subject to the specific prohibitions contained in 1692f(6) but is not subject to the FDCPA’s main coverage. Congress may have chosen to treat security-interest enforcement differently from ordinary debt collection to avoid conflicts with state nonjudicial foreclosure schemes; this reading is supported by legislative history, which suggests that the present language was a compromise between totally excluding security-interest enforcement and treating it like ordinary debt collection. View "Obduskey v. McCarthy & Holthus LLP" on Justia Law

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Minnesota law provides that “the dissolution or annulment of a marriage revokes any revocable . . . beneficiary designation . . . made by an individual to the individual’s former spouse,” Minn. Stat. 524.2–804. If an insurance policyholder does not want that result, he may rename the ex-spouse as beneficiary. Sveen and Melin were married in 1997. Sveen purchased a life insurance policy, naming Melin as the primary beneficiary and designating his children from a prior marriage as contingent beneficiaries. The marriage ended in 2007. The divorce decree did not mention the insurance policy. Sveen did not revise his beneficiary designations. After Sveen died in 2011, Melin and the Sveen children claimed the insurance proceeds. Melin argued that because the law did not exist when the policy was purchased, applying the later-enacted law violated the Contracts Clause. The Supreme Court reversed the Eighth Circuit, holding that the retroactive application of Minnesota’s law does not violate the Contracts Clause. The test for determining when a law crosses the constitutional line first asks whether the state law has “operated as a substantial impairment of a contractual relationship,” considering the extent to which the law undermines the contractual bargain, interferes with a party’s reasonable expectations, and prevents the party from safeguarding or reinstating his rights. If such factors show a substantial impairment, the inquiry turns to whether the state law is drawn in a “reasonable” way to advance “a significant and legitimate public purpose.” Three aspects of Minnesota’s law, taken together, show that the law does not substantially impair pre-existing contractual arrangements. The law is designed to reflect a policyholder’s intent and to support, rather than impair, the contractual scheme. The law is unlikely to disturb any policyholder’s expectations at the time of contracting, because an insured cannot reasonably rely on a beneficiary designation staying in place after a divorce. Divorce courts have wide discretion to divide property upon dissolution of a marriage. The law supplies a mere default rule, which the policyholder can easily undo. View "Sveen v. Melin" on Justia Law

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The Upper Skagit Indian Tribe purchased land and commissioned a boundary survey, which convinced the Tribe that about an acre of its land lay on the other side of a boundary fence between its land and land owned by the Lundgrens. The Lundgrens filed a quiet title action in Washington state court, arguing adverse possession and mutual acquiescence. The Washington Supreme Court rejected the Tribe’s sovereign immunity claim, reasoning that tribal sovereign immunity does not apply to in rem suits. The U.S. Supreme Court vacated and remanded. The precedent on which the state court relied (Yakima) addressed not the scope of tribal sovereign immunity, but a question of statutory interpretation of the Indian General Allotment Act of 1887. The Act authorized the President to allot parcels of reservation land to individual tribal members and directed the government to issue fee patents to the allottees. In 1934, Congress reversed course but did not withdraw the lands already conveyed so that Indian reservations sometimes contain both trust land held by the government and fee-patented land held by private parties. The Supreme Court held that the state collection of property taxes on fee-patented land within reservations was allowed under the Act; Yakima resolved nothing about the law of sovereign immunity. View "Upper Skagit Tribe v. Lundgren" on Justia Law