June 27, 2016

Dismissal—and appeal—of Palo Alto mobile home case

By Larry G. Salzman Senior Attorney

On Friday, the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California handed down a first-round defeat to the Jisser family, dismissing their property rights lawsuit. Blog readers will recall that PLF represents the Jissers in their case to block the City of Palo’s extortionate demand that the family pay roughly $8 million dollars in affordable housing assistance as a condition of getting a permit to close their mobile home park. PLF will represent the Jissers in an appeal of the ruling, filed today.

The crux of the decision is that the Jissers should have litigated their case all the way through California’s state courts before bringing their federal constitutional claims to federal court. But that is a misapplication of a line of cases springing from a 1985 U.S. Supreme Court case, Williamson County Regional Planning Commission v. Hamilton Bank, 473 U.S. 172.

When property owners seek just compensation for a taking of private property, Williamson County sometimes does require them to sue in state court before bringing their compensation claims to federal court. This is a unique hardship for property rights plaintiffs, who are forced to litigate for years in state court with little to no expectation of relief, only to then be required to file their takings claims in federal court. Indeed, PLF is known as a national expert in that area of law and has filed a number of petitions for certiorari in the U.S. Supreme Court in recent years seeking overturn that rule (e.g., one recent petition, denied last April).

However, the Jissers sought no money from the City. They have simply asked the federal court to stop the city’s unconstitutional shakedown before the harm is done. That kind of case falls outside the bizarre and inefficient procedural demands of the Williamson County precedent. With due respect to the District Court, it got the rule wrong—and that is why the Jissers have appealed their case.

Property rights are among the most important civil rights protected by the constitution, and federal courthouse doors must remain open to people who have had their property rights violated just like they are open to every other class of federal civil-rights plaintiffs.

 

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Jisser v. City of Palo Alto, California

The Jisser family owns the last mobile home park in super-expensive Palo Alto, California. They wanted to retire, leave the business entirely and close down the park, but the city demanded that the Jissers pay $8 million to the tenants to obtain the required permit. Representing the Jissers, PLF sued on the ground that the city’s demand was nothing more than extortion prohibited by the Fifth Amendment. A federal district court judge dismissed the case because he erroneously believed that the Jissers had to pursue state court remedies first. While the appeal was pending, the city agreed to give up the fight and purchase the mobile home park itself. The appeal is stayed pending resolution of the settlement.

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