On July 25, 2013, the United States Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit decided Sansotta v. Town of Nags Head, a case out of North Carolina. Sansotta dealt with the important issue of “ripeness,” which asks whether a case is procedurally appropriate for a court to make its decision.
In Sansotta, the Town of Nags Head (“the town”) claimed that certain cottages were nuisances after a storm caused severe damage to the area around the cottages. The cottage owners filed suit in a North Carolina court, alleging federal and state takings claims. The town, under a right permitted by federal statute, decided to remove (i.e. transfer) the case to federal court. Afterward, the town asked the federal court to dismiss the federal takings claims under Williamson County Regional Planning Commission v. Hamilton Bank of Johnson City, claiming the issue was not procedurally appropriate for a judicial decision (or “ripe”). The Fourth Circuit rejected the request, holding that the town had waived this argument by removing the case to federal court.
This type of maneuver by localities and state governments results from Williamson County’s unique doctrine. Under Williamson County, a landowner suing a state or locality for a federal, Fifth Amendment takings claim cannot sue in a federal court until they seek compensation through procedures provided by state law, including lawsuits. This has some very unusual (and for landowners, unwanted) results. In particular, it often forces landowners to bring their federal takings claims in a state court alongside their state takings claims. States and localities, then, will often use this fact to manipulate the posture of the case by removing claims to federal court and then seek to dismiss a landowner’s federal takings claim, claiming it is not “ripe” for a decision. This has the advantage of being time-consuming and very expensive, keeping landowners in legal limbo.
The Fourth Circuit rightfully saw through the town’s strategy and held the town waived Williamson County’s “state-litigation requirement.” The court noted that allowing the town to invoke Williamson County after voluntarily removing the case to federal court would effectively allow states and localities to bend the playing field in their favor and deny landowners a forum for having their claims decided by a court.
How Sansotta v. Town of Nags Head Applies to Virginia
Although this case is based on claims brought in North Carolina, it is equally applicable to Virginia property owners, who are also covered by the Fourth Circuit. Indeed, Sansotta is part of a broader group of recent cases that have shown federal courts are weary of such procedural maneuvers and are not willing to oblige them. In short, the Commonwealth, VDOT, and localities cannot use this flimsy procedural tactic to hold-up or prevent landowner claims for takings.