In order to create better telecom infrastructure, New York state law gives private telecom firms the power to take private property in exchange for just compensation. Verizon used this power to build terminal boxes on thousands of pieces of private property, thus essentially permanently occupying a part of the properties. Verizon is one of a few companies that enjoy this extraordinary, state-granted privilege to build things on other people’s property without their permission.
Those companies, however, must compensate the owners (at least theoretically) for these sorts of takings of property. Kurtz v. Verizon New York, Inc. arises from a putative class action alleging that Verizon failed to compensate 30,000-50,000 property owners for building terminal boxes on their property. Although Verizon is required to give property owners their “full compensation rights,” the plaintiffs argue that the company continuously flouts this requirement “as a matter of corporate policy and practice,” thus violating both the plaintiffs’ rights to procedural due process—for example, by not even notifying them that their property was being taken—and their Fifth Amendment rights to not have their property taken for public use without just compensation.
The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit, however, ruled that the plaintiffs couldn’t proceed with their claims because of a case called Williamson County Regional Planning Commission v. Hamilton Bank of Johnson City (1985), in which the Supreme Court ruled that plaintiffs with takings claims have to seek relief from state courts before proceeding with a federal claim. Otherwise, the case will be dismissed for being not “ripe”—not ready for a federal court to hear the case.
Although this may seem like a small hoop-jumping exercise, this procedural requirement creates an unnecessary and burdensome extra step that can prevent many plaintiffs from ever having their takings claims heard in federal court. No other enumerated constitutional right has a similar requirement. Plaintiffs claiming a First Amendment violation, for example, don’t first have to exhaust their case in state courts.
The plaintiffs are now petitioning the Supreme Court to review the continuing relevance of Williamson County. In a brief supporting the petition, Cato, joining the Pacific Legal Foundation, argues that takings claims are ripe when the taking occurs, not after a plaintiff has gone through the state courts. Moreover, we point out that Williamson County, when combined with other rules of civil procedure, has actually prevented many claimants from ever bringing a case.
After exhausting their claims in state courts, some plaintiffs find that federal courts will dismiss their case on the ground that the matter has already been decided (what lawyers call res judicata, or “judged matter”). Other times, defendants will ask the judge to move the case from state court to federal court and then, once the case is in federal court, will argue that the plaintiffs did not exhaust their claims in state court (which of course they couldn’t have done because the defendants removed the case).
This Kafka-esque system is not the way to properly vindicate constitutional rights, and it’s certainly not what the Supreme Court imagined when it decided Williamson County. The Court should take this case to remove an unnecessary and harmful barrier to the protection of private property.