PLF secures important property rights victory in the Fifth Circuit

May 14, 2012 | By JOSHUA THOMPSON

Today, the Fifth Circuit decided Bowlby v. City of Aberdeen.  In this case, Debra Bowlby sought and received a permit to operate a small sno-cone hut in the City of Aberdeen, Mississippi.  Then, a month after the City granted her the permit (and she began operating her business), the City simply revoked her permit.  Ms. Bowlby brought suit, arguing that the City’s revocation of her permit deprived her of her property in violation of due process under the Fourteenth Amendment.

The City defended the lawsuit by arguing that Ms. Bowlby’s case was not ripe.  That is, the City argued that Ms. Bowlby had to ask the City to reconsider at the administrative level and go through the Mississippi state court system before she could bring her federal due process claim in federal court. If this doctrine sounds familiar, that’s because this is exactly what property owners have to do in order bring their Fifth Amendment federal takings claims in federal court.  The “Williamson County doctrine” requires that property owners must secure a “final agency decision” and seek and be denied compensation for a taking in state court before they can file suit in federal court.  In many cases, these formidable ripeness rules work to deny property owners their rightful day in court, by forcing them to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars in administrative and state court proceedings before they ever get a chance to have their Fifth Amendment “just compensation” rights heard in a court of law.

Here, the City tried to extend the Williamson County doctrine from only Fifth Amendment takings claims to Fourteenth Amendment due process claims.  According to the City, even though it formally revoked her business permits, without notice or hearing, Ms. Bowlby was not allowed to fight for her rights in federal court.  The City claimed her due process claim was barred by the same, multi-layered ripeness barriers as any takings claim. Unfortunately, the district court agreed with the City, and dismissed Ms. Bowlby’s claims as unripe.  That’s where PLF came in.

PLF filed a brief in the Fifth Circuit arguing that there is not, and should not, be any requirement that due process plaintiffs must pursue after the fact remedies — at the city or state court level — before they can challenge a taking of their property without proper notice and hearing.  The injury, and thus, they right to sue, exist at the moment the deprivation occurs without due process — not at some later time.   Today, the Court agreed with PLF — and explicitly recognized PLF’s work in this area:  Here is what the Court said:

[Bowlby’s] appeal is supported by an amicus curiae brief submitted by the Pacific Legal Foundation (“Foundation”), a charitable organization dedicated to preserving the individual right to make reasonable use of private property. The Foundation argues that the district judge incorrectly applied a ripeness requirement to Bowlby’s procedural due process claim, because that claim was actionable as soon as a predeprivation hearing was denied.

The Court goes on:

We agree with the Foundation that the Williamson County final-decision requirement makes more sense when the taking alleged is a regulatory taking.

The Court further agreed with PLF that procedural due process claims, like Bowlby’s, cannot be treated like an unripe takings law, but are analyzed on their own merits, under law that does not require either exhaustion of administrative or state court remedies.  A property owner can sue in federal court the moment they are deprived of property.

This is an important victory for individual rights in America.  The Williamson County doctrine has been denying property owners their rightful day in court for years now. Fortunately, the Fifth Circuit has declined to extend this horrible doctrine any further, and we are grateful that it looked to our brief for its decision.  PLF will continue to fight the injustice that is the Williamson County doctrine in courts throughout the country.  Today, we get to celebrate a little.