Justia U.S. Supreme Court Opinion Summaries

Articles Posted in Real Estate & Property Law
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Atlantic sought to construct a 604-mile natural gas pipeline from West Virginia to North Carolina, crossing 16 miles of land within the George Washington National Forest. Atlantic secured a special use permit from the U.S. Forest Service, obtaining a right-of-way for a 0.1-mile segment of pipe 600 feet below a portion of the Appalachian National Scenic Trail, which also crosses the National Forest. The Fourth Circuit vacated the permit. The Supreme Court reversed. The Department of the Interior’s assignment of responsibility for the Appalachian Trail to the National Park Service did not transform the Trail land into land within the National Park System that is not eligible for a pipeline lease. The Forest Service had the authority to issue the special use permit. Under 16 U.S.C. 521, the Forest Service has jurisdiction over the National Forest. The National Trails System Act, 16 U.S.C. 244(a), applies to the Appalachian Trail; the Secretary of the Interior has delegated to the National Park System the authority to enter into “rights-of-way” agreements for the Trail. The Leasing Act enables any “appropriate agency head” to grant “[r]ights-of-way through any Federal lands . . . for pipeline purposes,” 30 U.S.C. 185(a), except lands in the National Park System. The National Park System is administered by the Secretary of the Interior, through the National Park Service, 54 U.S.C. 100501. The Forest Service “right-of-way” agreements with the National Park Service for the Appalachian Trail did not convert National Forest “Federal lands” under the Leasing Act into “lands” within the “National Park System.” A right-of-way grant only nonpossessory rights of use. Although the federal government owns all lands involved, a right-of-way between two agencies grants only an easement, not jurisdiction over the land itself. View "United States Forest Service v. Cowpasture River Preservation Association" on Justia Law

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For nearly a century, the Anaconda Copper Smelter contaminated 300 square miles with arsenic and lead. For 35 years, the EPA has worked with the now-closed smelter’s current owner, Atlantic Richfield, to implement a cleanup plan. Landowners sued Atlantic Richfield in state court for common law nuisance, trespass, and strict liability, seeking restoration damages, which Montana law requires to be spent on property rehabilitation. The landowners’ proposed plan exceeds the measures found necessary to protect human health and the environment by EPA. Montana courts rejected an argument that the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act, 42 U.S.C. 9601, section 113, stripped them of jurisdiction. Section 113 states that no potentially responsible party (PRP) "may undertake any remedial action” at the site without EPA approval and provides federal courts with “exclusive original jurisdiction over all controversies arising under” the Act. The U.S. Supreme Court affirmed in part. The Act does not strip the Montana courts of jurisdiction over this lawsuit. The common law claims “arise under” Montana law, not under the Act. Section 113(b) deprives state courts of jurisdiction over cases “arising under” the Act while section 113(h) deprives federal courts of jurisdiction over certain “challenges” to remedial actions; section 113(h) does not broaden section 113(b). The Court vacated in part. The landowners are PRPs who need EPA approval to take remedial action. Section 107, the liability section, includes any “owner” of “a facility.” “Facility” is defined to include “any site or area where a hazardous substance has been deposited, stored, disposed of, or placed, or otherwise come to be located.” Because arsenic and lead are hazardous substances that have “come to be located” on the landowners’ properties, the landowners are PRPs. Even “innocent landowners," whose land has been contaminated by another, and who are shielded from liability by section 107(b)(3), may fall within the broad definitions of PRPs in sections 107(a)(1)–(4). Interpreting PRPs to include property owners reflects the objective of a single EPA-led cleanup effort rather than thousands of competing efforts. The EPA policy of not suing innocent owners does not alter the landowners’ status as PRPs. View "Atlantic Richfield Co. v. Christian" on Justia Law

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Scott Township passed an ordinance requiring that “[a]ll cemeteries . . . be kept open and accessible to the general public during daylight hours.” Knick, whose 90-acre rural property has a small family graveyard, was notified that she was violating the ordinance. Knick sought declaratory relief, arguing that the ordinance caused a taking of her property, but did not bring an inverse condemnation action. The Township withdrew the violation notice and stayed enforcement of the ordinance. The state court declined to rule on Knick’s suit. Knick filed a federal action under 42 U.S.C. 1983, alleging that the ordinance violated the Takings Clause. The Third Circuit affirmed the dismissal of her claim, citing Supreme Court precedent (Williamson County) that property owners must seek just compensation under state law in state court before bringing a federal claim under section 1983. The Supreme Court reversed. A government violates the Takings Clause when it takes property without compensation; a property owner may bring a Fifth Amendment claim under section 1983 at that time. The Court noted that two years after the Williamson County decision, it returned to its traditional understanding of the Fifth Amendment in deciding First English Evangelical Lutheran Church. A property owner acquires a right to compensation immediately upon an uncompensated taking because the taking itself violates the Fifth Amendment. The Court expressly overruled the state-litigation requirement as "poor reasoning" resulting from the circumstances in which the issue reached the Court. The requirement was unworkable in practice because the “preclusion trap” prevented takings plaintiffs from ever bringing their claims in federal court. There are no reliance interests on the state-litigation requirement. If post-taking compensation remedies are available, governments need not fear that federal courts will invalidate their regulations as unconstitutional. View "Knick v. Township of Scott" on Justia Law

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The Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act (ANILCA) set aside 104 million acres of federally-owned land for preservation, creating 10 new national parks, monuments, and preserves (units), 16 U.S.C. 3102(4). In establishing boundaries, Congress followed natural features rather than enclosing only federally-owned lands, sweeping in more than 18 million acres of state, Native, and private land, which could have become subject to many National Park Service rules, 54 U.S.C. 100751 (Organic Act). ANILCA Section 103(c) states that only “public lands,” defined as most federally-owned lands, waters, and associated interests, within any unit’s boundaries are “deemed” part of that unit and that no state, Native, or private lands “shall be subject to the regulations applicable solely to public lands within units." The Service may “acquire such lands,” after which it may administer the land as public lands within units. Sturgeon traveled by hovercraft up the Nation River within the boundaries of the Yukon-Charley Preserve unit. Park rangers informed him that the Service’s rules (36 CFR 2.17(e)) prohibit operating a hovercraft on navigable waters “located within [a park’s] boundaries.” That regulation, issued under the Service’s Organic Act authority, applies to parks nationwide without regard to the ownership of submerged lands, tidelands, or lowlands. The district court and the Ninth Circuit denied Sturgeon relief. A unanimous Supreme Court reversed. The Nation River is not public land under ANILCA. Running waters cannot be owned; under the Submerged Lands Act, Alaska, not the United States, holds “title to and ownership" of the lands beneath navigable waters, 43 U.S.C. 1311. Even if the United States has an “interest” in the River under the reserved-water-rights doctrine, the River itself would not be “public land.” Section 103(c) exempts non-public lands, including waters, from Park Service regulations, which apply “solely” to public lands within the units. View "Sturgeon v. Frost" on Justia Law

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The McCarthy law firm was hired to carry out a nonjudicial foreclosure on Obduskey’s Colorado home. Obduskey invoked the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act (FDCPA) provision, 15 U.S.C. 1692g(b), providing that if a consumer disputes the amount of a debt, a “debt collector” must “cease collection” until it “obtains verification of the debt” and mails a copy to the debtor. Instead, McCarthy initiated a nonjudicial foreclosure action. The Tenth Circuit and Supreme Court affirmed the dismissal of Obduskey’s suit, holding that McCarthy was not a “debt collector.” A business engaged in only nonjudicial foreclosure proceedings is not a “debt collector” under the FDCPA, except for the limited purpose of section 1692f(6). The FDCPA defines “debt collector” an “any person . . . in any business the principal purpose of which is the collection of any debts, or who regularly collects or attempts to collect, directly or indirectly, debts.” The limited-purpose definition states that “[f]or the purpose of section 1692f(6) . . . [the] term [debt collector] also includes any person . . . in any business the principal purpose of which is the enforcement of security interests.” McCarthy, in enforcing security interests, is subject to the specific prohibitions contained in 1692f(6) but is not subject to the FDCPA’s main coverage. Congress may have chosen to treat security-interest enforcement differently from ordinary debt collection to avoid conflicts with state nonjudicial foreclosure schemes; this reading is supported by legislative history, which suggests that the present language was a compromise between totally excluding security-interest enforcement and treating it like ordinary debt collection. View "Obduskey v. McCarthy & Holthus LLP" on Justia Law

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Minnesota law provides that “the dissolution or annulment of a marriage revokes any revocable . . . beneficiary designation . . . made by an individual to the individual’s former spouse,” Minn. Stat. 524.2–804. If an insurance policyholder does not want that result, he may rename the ex-spouse as beneficiary. Sveen and Melin were married in 1997. Sveen purchased a life insurance policy, naming Melin as the primary beneficiary and designating his children from a prior marriage as contingent beneficiaries. The marriage ended in 2007. The divorce decree did not mention the insurance policy. Sveen did not revise his beneficiary designations. After Sveen died in 2011, Melin and the Sveen children claimed the insurance proceeds. Melin argued that because the law did not exist when the policy was purchased, applying the later-enacted law violated the Contracts Clause. The Supreme Court reversed the Eighth Circuit, holding that the retroactive application of Minnesota’s law does not violate the Contracts Clause. The test for determining when a law crosses the constitutional line first asks whether the state law has “operated as a substantial impairment of a contractual relationship,” considering the extent to which the law undermines the contractual bargain, interferes with a party’s reasonable expectations, and prevents the party from safeguarding or reinstating his rights. If such factors show a substantial impairment, the inquiry turns to whether the state law is drawn in a “reasonable” way to advance “a significant and legitimate public purpose.” Three aspects of Minnesota’s law, taken together, show that the law does not substantially impair pre-existing contractual arrangements. The law is designed to reflect a policyholder’s intent and to support, rather than impair, the contractual scheme. The law is unlikely to disturb any policyholder’s expectations at the time of contracting, because an insured cannot reasonably rely on a beneficiary designation staying in place after a divorce. Divorce courts have wide discretion to divide property upon dissolution of a marriage. The law supplies a mere default rule, which the policyholder can easily undo. View "Sveen v. Melin" on Justia Law

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The Upper Skagit Indian Tribe purchased land and commissioned a boundary survey, which convinced the Tribe that about an acre of its land lay on the other side of a boundary fence between its land and land owned by the Lundgrens. The Lundgrens filed a quiet title action in Washington state court, arguing adverse possession and mutual acquiescence. The Washington Supreme Court rejected the Tribe’s sovereign immunity claim, reasoning that tribal sovereign immunity does not apply to in rem suits. The U.S. Supreme Court vacated and remanded. The precedent on which the state court relied (Yakima) addressed not the scope of tribal sovereign immunity, but a question of statutory interpretation of the Indian General Allotment Act of 1887. The Act authorized the President to allot parcels of reservation land to individual tribal members and directed the government to issue fee patents to the allottees. In 1934, Congress reversed course but did not withdraw the lands already conveyed so that Indian reservations sometimes contain both trust land held by the government and fee-patented land held by private parties. The Supreme Court held that the state collection of property taxes on fee-patented land within reservations was allowed under the Act; Yakima resolved nothing about the law of sovereign immunity. View "Upper Skagit Tribe v. Lundgren" on Justia Law

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The St. Croix River, part of the boundary between Wisconsin and Minnesota, is protected under federal, state, and local law. State and local regulations prevent the use or sale of adjacent riverside lots under common ownership as separate building sites unless they have at least one acre of land suitable for development. Petitioners’ parents purchased adjacent Troy, Wisconsin lots separately in the 1960s, and transferred one lot to petitioners in 1994 and the other to petitioners in 1995. Each lot is over one acre, but because of the topography, each has less than one acre suitable for development; common ownership barred their separate sale or development. Petitioners unsuccessfully sought variances, then filed suit, alleging a regulatory taking. The state courts and U.S. Supreme Court rejected the claims, regarding the property as a single unit in assessing the effect of the challenged governmental action. The Court noted the flexibility inherent in regulatory takings jurisprudence. Courts must consider several factors. Wisconsin’s merger provision is a legitimate exercise of state power and the valid merger of the lots under state law informs the reasonable expectation that the lots will be treated as a single property. The lots are contiguous. Their terrain and shape make it reasonable to expect their range of potential uses might be limited. Petitioners could have anticipated regulation of the property, given its location along the river, which was regulated by federal, state, and local law long before they acquired the land. The restriction is mitigated by the benefits of using the property as an integrated whole, allowing increased privacy and recreational space, plus an optimal location for any improvements. This relationship is evident in the lots’ combined valuation. View "Murr v. Wisconsin" on Justia Law

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Peat mining companies sought a Clean Water Act, 33 U.S.C. 1311(a), 1362, permit from the Army Corps of Engineers, to discharge material onto wetlands on property that they own and hope to mine. The Corps issued a jurisdictional designation (JD) stating that the property contained “waters of the United States” because its wetlands had a “significant nexus” to the Red River of the North, located 120 miles away. The district court dismissed their appeal for want of jurisdiction, holding that the JD was not a “final agency action for which there is no other adequate remedy,” 5 U.S.C. 704. The Eighth Circuit reversed. The Supreme Court affirmed. The Corps’ approved JD is a final agency action judicially reviewable under the Administrative Procedures Act. An approved JD clearly “mark[s] the consummation” of the Corps’ decision-making on whether particular property contains “waters of the United States.” It is issued after extensive fact-finding regarding the property’s physical and hydrological characteristics and typically remains valid for five years. The Corps describes approved JDs as “final agency action.” The definitive nature of approved JDs gives rise to “direct and appreciable legal consequences.” A “negative” creates a five-year safe harbor from governmental civil enforcement proceedings and limits the potential liability for violating the Act. An “affirmative” JD, like issued here, deprives property owners of the five-year safe harbor. Parties need not await enforcement proceedings before challenging final agency action where such proceedings carry the risk of “serious criminal and civil penalties.” The permitting process is costly and lengthy, and irrelevant to the finality of the approved JD and its suitability for judicial review. View "Army Corps of Eng'rs v. Hawkes Co." on Justia Law

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The Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act (ANILCA) set aside 104 million acres of land in “conservation system units,” to include “any unit in Alaska of the National Park System, National Wildlife Refuge System, National Wild and Scenic Rivers Systems, National Trails System, National Wilderness Preservation System, or a National Forest Monument,” 16 U.S.C. 3102(4), plus 18 million acres of state, Native Corporation, and private land. Sturgeon was piloting his hovercraft over the Nation River in the Yukon-Charley Rivers National Preserve, a conservation system unit managed by the National Park Service. Alaska law permits the use of hovercraft. National Park Service regulations, adopted under 54 U.S.C. 100751(b), do not. Rangers told Sturgeon that hovercraft were prohibited. Sturgeon protested that Park Service regulations did not apply because the river was owned by the state. Sturgeon complied, then filed suit. The Ninth Circuit affirmed summary judgment in favor of the Park Service. ANILCA provides: “No lands ... conveyed to the State, to any Native Corporation, or to any private party shall be subject to the regulations applicable solely to public lands within such units.” Public land is generally land to which the U.S. holds title.. The Ninth Circuit reasoned that the hovercraft regulation applied to all federal-owned lands and waters administered by the Park Service nationwide, so it did not apply “solely” within the units. The Supreme Court unanimously rejected that reasoning and vacated. ANILCA carves out numerous Alaska-specific exceptions to the Park Service’s general authority over federally managed preservation areas, reflecting that Alaska is often the exception, not the rule. The Court did not determine whether the Nation River qualifies as “public land” under ANILCA or whether the Park Service has authority to regulate Sturgeon’s activities on the Nation River. View "Sturgeon v. Frost" on Justia Law