Property Rights

All Property Rights Cases

A society cannot flourish and individuals cannot advance their private interests without individual rights to create and productively use property. PLF litigates in several areas of law to secure property rights as the foundation of liberty.

At PLF, we: secure the right to the productive and ordinary use of land; prevent governments from taking property; fight unconstitutional or unlawful regulatory requirements; promote balance in environmental laws; and stop unreasonable searches and seizures.

Waters of the United States

Unanimous U.S. Supreme Court victory for PLF and property rights

In 2015 PLF challenged the Environmental Protection Agency’s proposed rule to stretch federal control to nearly every pond, ditch, and puddle in the nation as nothing more than an outrageous—and illegal—power grab under cover of the Clean Water Act. And under the Act, people who are harmed by such rules have six years to sue in federal district court. That is, until the EPA rewrote the rule, trying to prevent legal action by giving property owners just 120 days to sue, and then only in federal appellate courts. On January 22, 2018, the U.S. Supreme Court rejected the EPA’s power play and unanimously ruled for PLF and property rights. The High Court agreed with PLF that the EPA cannot shelter its “waters of the United States” rule from judicial review by arbitrarily limiting where victims can sue.

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Bears Ears National Monument Litigation

Defending public lands access for all

In December 2016, under cover of the Antiquities Act, President Obama unilaterally created the 1.35 million acre Bears Ears National Monument. One year later, President Trump slashed the size of the monument by 85 percent—to around 200,000 acres, freeing up more than one million acres for public use. Outerwear retailer Patagonia, environmental groups, and others sued the federal government, saying the President’s decision was illegal. On behalf of recreationists, ranchers, sportsmen and conservation organizations, and Utah state representative Michael Noel, Pacific Legal Foundation is defending the monument’s reduction to ensure that public lands remain accessible to everyone.

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Rafaeli, LLC v. Oakland County

Michigan County Steals House for $8 Debt

In 2014, Oakland County, Michigan foreclosed on a home owned by Uri Rafaeli’s business—Rafaeli, LLC—over an $8.41 tax debt. The County sold the property for $24,500, and kept profits. Ditto for Andre Ohanessian, when the County seized and sold his property for $82,000, and pocketed every penny left over from the $6,000 tax debt. While most states refund the surplus, Michigan is among a handful of states that allow property theft to fill government coffers. PLF has asked the Michigan Supreme Court to strike down this bureaucratic theft and restore our clients’ constitutional rights.

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Coastal Rights Coalition v. California Coastal Commission

California coastal homeowners at risk by Coastal Commission’s illegal seawall policy

When coastal property owners seek permits for new residential development, the California Coastal Commission requires them to agree never to build a seawall to protect the structure from storms and erosion. This policy was imposed by fiat, without public notice, hearings, and opportunity for public comment, as required by the California Administrative Procedure Act.

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Knick v. Scott Township, Pennsylvania

Supreme Court to review federal courts’ “second class” treatment of property rights

Rose Mary Knick owns a quiet, 90-acre, stone-fenced farm in rural eastern Pennsylvania. But the local town government claims that her property might have an old burial ground. According to a local ordinance, that means she must allow unrestricted public access to her private property. In other words, anyone can invade Ms. Knick’s property any time of day to visit a few stones the Township claims may mark an old gravesite.

Ms. Knick tried to challenge this violation of her constitutionally protected property rights in state and federal courts, who claimed they could not hear her suit, effectively shutting the doors to justice. PLF argues that property owners are entitled to their day in federal courts when governments violate their federal rights without paying for it. The U.S. Supreme Court announced that it will hear Rose Mary’s case later this year.

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Santa Barbara Association of Realtors v. City of Santa Barbara and Santa Barbara City Council

Homeowners Coerced into Unconstitutional Administrative Searches

A City of Santa Barbara ordinance requires that anyone selling his or her home allow the City to conduct an unconstitutional search of the inside and outside of the house and of the yard. The Fourth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution protects people from unconstitutional searches, particularly in their homes, and PLF is fighting back.

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Personal Liberties

All Personal Liberties Cases

The liberty protected by the Constitution encompasses your right to be free in the enjoyment of all of your abilities in the pursuit of happiness, including the right to express yourself in thought and action, to pursue the occupation of your choice, to live where you want, and to pursue the best education for you and your children.

At PLF, we: vindicate freedom of speech and association; defend the right to earn a living; support freedom in education; and uphold equal protection of the law, including freedom from racial discrimination.

Robinson v. Wentzell

Required by state law, race-based quotas at Hartford, Connecticut, magnet schools deny Black and Hispanic students’ civil rights and chances for high-quality education.

Representing seven families, PLF sued to ensure that Black and Hispanic students have the same educational opportunities as all children in Connecticut. The City of Hartford runs a number of world-class magnet schools. These schools are so successful that demand outstrips the schools’ capacity, and a lottery is used to decide who can attend. But because state law imposes racial quotas on these schools—enrollment must be at least 25% white or Asian—Black and Hispanic students are denied admission if their enrollment at a school would raise minority enrollment above 75%—even if it means seats remain empty.

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Nemhauser v. City of Mount Dora

Couple faces bureaucratic “Sorrow” for “Starry Night” mural

What started as artistic expression in Mount Dora, Florida, has escalated into a bureaucratic nightmare for Nancy Nemhauser and Lubomir Jastrzebski. When the couple painted a Van Gogh-style “Starry Night” mural on a wall outside their house, the city declared the art “graffiti” because it didn’t match the color of the house. But when Nancy and Lubomir responded by painting a similar mural on the house, the city branded both as illegal “signs,” and fined them $3,100 with orders to paint over the mural. On behalf of Nancy and Lubomir, PLF is challenging the city. We argue that banning such artistic murals is an abusive interpretation of the city’s sign ordinance, and violates the First and Fourteenth Amendments.

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Vaping Litigation

The Constitution going up in vapor

Electronic nicotine delivery systems—vaping devices and e-cigarettes—first hit U.S. stores in 2007. It didn’t take long for vaping to jump from zero to a $5 billion domestic industry, as entrepreneurs quickly recognized a market hungry for an alternative to traditional cigarettes. In 2016, just as the burgeoning vaping industry was getting off the ground, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) stepped in with a rule that deems e-cigarettes as tobacco products, and brand new, severe regulations that will only harm the industry and perhaps overall public health—contrary to the agency’s very mission. Using a unique legal theory, Pacific Legal Foundation is suing the FDA in three separate federal courtrooms—at the same time—on behalf of vape store owners and a harm reduction organization in several states who want to promote a more healthy alternative to smoking. The unconstitutional rule burdens these individuals and organizations in unique ways, but all are united in opposition to its continued enforcement. The FDA’s regulations are not only expensive and onerous, and prevent vaping entrepreneurs from fulfilling what they believe is a humanitarian mission of helping people, but the rule was illegal the second it hit the Federal Register.

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Minnesota Voters Alliance v. Mansky

U.S. Supreme Court will review Minnesota’s fashion (non)sense

On February 28, 2018, the U.S. Supreme Court heard oral argument in our case challenging a Minnesota election law that literally strips free speech rights from the backs of voters. A Minnesota state law prohibits voters from wearing “political” apparel at a polling place. This includes any t-shirt, button, or other item that identifies any political issue and even any organization that is known to take positions on political issues. Voters who wear AFL-CIO or NRA caps are told they must remove them before they can enter the polling place and vote. If they refuse, election officials take their names for possible prosecution and penalties up to $5,000. Lower courts upheld this law on the theory that government can ban all expression, besides voting, at a polling place.

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K.J. v. Minnesota State High School League

School athletics can’t turn kids away based on their sex

Kaiden Johnson loves competitive dance, and he is a valued member of the varsity dance team at Superior High School in Superior, Wisconsin. But the team primarily competes against high schools across the river in Duluth, Minnesota—and the Minnesota State High School League has a “girls only” policy for dance teams.

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Elster v. City of Seattle, Washington

Seattle’s politician enrichment tax forces property owners to subsidize private political speech and violates the First Amendment

Representing Seattle residents and property owners, PLF sued to overturn Seattle’s ordinance mandating public campaign financing. Under the city’s “democracy voucher” program, each Seattle resident receives four $25 vouchers to support eligible candidates for local political office. The money to fund the voucher program is taken from the city’s property owners via a dedicated levy. The lawsuit argues that these compelled subsidies violate the First Amendment right to refrain from speaking – or funding the speech of another person.

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Procedural Guarantees

All Procedural Guarantees Cases

The Constitution establishes a separation of powers and express guarantees of due process. The fight for liberty is often a matter of ensuring that those who govern us do not exceed their constitutionally limited authority when enacting and enforcing the law.

At PLF, we: fight to end the modern administrative state, including limiting judicial deference to legislative and administrative judgments; restore separation of powers against improper delegation of authority to bureaucrats; define the limited scope of federal power under the Commerce Clause; revive the doctrine of enumerated powers; and ensure due process of law.

American Federation of Aviculture v. U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

Thriving golden parakeets no longer need Endangered Species Act protection

Thanks to the efforts of private breeders, the golden parakeet is no longer threatened with extinction. Although the federal government acknowledges the bird’s tenfold increase in numbers, it has refused to comply with a law that requires it to make a final decision to delist or downlist the parakeet within 12 months of that finding. On behalf of a coalition of breeders and bird owners, the American Federation of Aviculture, PLF is suing the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to force it to comply with the law, reclassify the golden parakeet, and lift onerous restrictions that prevent breeders from selling to all other breeders.

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California Cattlemen’s Association v. California Fish and Game Commission

Wandering lone wolf in California triggers “endangered” listing

Based on the sighting of a lone non-native gray wolf in California, the state Fish and Game Commission listed the gray wolf species under the California Endangered Species Act, effective January 1, 2017. On behalf of the California Cattlemen’s Association, the California Farm Bureau Federation, and their members, PLF sued to invalidate this illegal listing, which protects a non-native species at the expense of native species, ignores the growing wolf populations outside California, and upends a multi-year collaborative process among government, environmental, and ranching interests to balance wolf protection with livestock protection. 

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Rinehart v. California

Golden State no more? California bans gold prospecting

California’s original Forty-Niners made their fortunes in gold with shovels and pans. Modern-day prospectors use a “suction dredge” – a specialized vacuum – to suck up sediment from streams, extract the gold, and then return the sediment to the stream. Federal law not only permits but encourages suction dredge mining, even on federal lands, while states retain the right to require permits and regulate environmental impacts. Unsatisfied with this balanced approach, California banned suction-dredge mining entirely. Brandon Rinehart, who profitably mined his Nugget Alley claim in the Plumas National Forest for years, was convicted of violating the ban over his defense that the ban is preempted by the federal Mining Act of 1872.

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Massachusetts Lobstermen’s Association v. Ross

President Obama’s abuse of Antiquities Act declares 5,000 square miles of ocean off-limits

The Antiquities Act of 1906 authorizes the President to declare monuments on “land owned or controlled by the Federal government” to protect their historic or scientific value. On his way out of office, President Obama used this power to declare a 5,000 square mile area of the ocean to be the Northeast Canyons and Seamount Marine National Monument. Because the ocean is not “land owned or controlled by the Federal government,” PLF represents a coalition of fishing industry associations in a lawsuit challenging this abuse of the statute, which renders off-limits areas long used for sustainable commercial fishing near New England and the East Coast.

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Granat v. U.S. Department of Agriculture

Fighting to keep public lands open to all

Using the pretext of a transportation plan update, the U.S. Forest Service shut down thousands of previously accessible roads and trails – nearly 700 miles’ worth – within the Plumas National Forest. By forbidding any motor vehicle access, the policy prevents Amy Granat, who cannot walk unaided, from using a motorized vehicle to access vast areas of the forest. Granat and other recreational users of the forest are challenging the Service’s cavalier decision to withhold national forest land from members of the public without justification. The Service failed to comply with federal environmental laws that require a searching investigation of the impacts of barring access.

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Center for Biological Diversity v. Zinke

Congress’s power exceeds administrative agencies

The Center for Biological Diversity, a group that favors expansive government control over the environment, sued Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke when Congress voted, pursuant to the Congressional Review Act, to rescind an Alaska wildlife refuge rule related to predator control. CBD argues that the CRA is an unconstitutional abridgment of executive power, and that regulations cannot be rescinded by Congress unless it also rewrites the underlying legislation. Representing itself as well as a coalition of individual Alaskans and related organizations, PLF seeks to intervene in support of the rule’s rescission and the constitutionality of the Congressional Review Act.

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