Federal Civil Rights Act of 1871 allows Americans to sue in federal court to justify the government’s violation of their civil rights. Congress has guaranteed the federal forum for fear that state courts will not be fully reliable in protecting constitutional rights. For this reason, civil rights claimants can usually sue directly in federal court even though state law would otherwise require them to sue a public body or court.
The Supreme Court created an exception to the general rule in Williamson County Reg’l Planning Comm’n v. Hamilton Bank (1985) when it ruled that landowners seeking to assert their constitutional right to compensation when the government take their property must exhaust state remedies before proceeding to federal court. The case treated property rights as inferior to other constitutional protections, such as freedom of expression and due process. Two years ago, the Supreme Court recognized its error and overturned Williamson County’s exhaustion requirement in Knick v. Township of Scott (2019) (PLF’s attorneys were attorneys of record in the Pakdel, Cedar Point and Knick cases). The Knick decision emphasized that property rights are civil rights – the same as any other claim based on the Bill of Rights – and cannot be relegated to second-class status.
The Supreme Court was divided 5-4 on whether Rose Knick could sue in federal court without a multi-year detour by jumping through the hoops of state courts. But in Pakdel v. City and County of San Francisco (PLF’s attorneys were registered attorneys in the Pakdel, Cedar Point and Knick cases), 2021 DJDAR 6459, decided on June 28, the court spoke with one voice. Knick means what he says: there is no requirement of state exhaustion, and a tribunal that distorts other doctrines of justiciability to impose one will be summarily overturned.
The Pakdel case challenges a San Francisco ordinance that conditioned condo conversions to non-occupant landlords offering a lifetime lease to any existing tenant. Peyman Pakdel and his wife had a contract with other owners of their building to participate in the conversion process, so they were required to offer their tenant the lease for life. They later asked the city to waive the requirement, but the city refused, reminding the Pakdels that they would be subject to “enforcement action” if they did not comply.
The Pakdels sued in federal district court in 2017, to be deported under Williamson County’s exhaustion rule. While their appeal was pending in the 9th Circuit, the Supreme Court ruled on Knick and the Pakdels requested a remand to argue the merits of their claims. To their surprise, a divided court upheld the rejection, ruling that because the Pakdels had not administratively appealed the lifetime lease requirement, their claims were not mature, although no proceedings remained available. to avoid the requirement of a lifetime lease.
The Supreme Court’s unsigned Curiam ruling in the Pakdel case rejected the 9th Circuit ruling that an owner’s claim is not ripe if he has not pursued administrative appeals in a timely manner. In short, “administrative missteps do not run counter to maturity once the government has adopted its final position”. There is no special test for determining whether a decision is final. This is a “relatively modest” requirement to demonstrate that there is no doubt as to how the contested regulation applies to the plaintiff’s property. Here, the city’s explicit refusal to waive the requirement for a life lease was sufficient.
On remand, lower courts should consider the merits of the Pakdels’ claims. Yet they may face another hurdle. The 9th Circuit ruling also ruled that the district court correctly dismissed their request for unconstitutional terms because the life lease requirement was imposed by law rather than by a specific court process as to their particular property. While not directly ruling on this aspect of the decision, the Supreme Court urged that the court should consider the Pakdels’ pretrial detention claims in light of Cedar Point Nursery v. Hassid (PLF’s attorneys were attorneys of record in the Pakdel, Cedar Point and Knick cases), 2021 DJDAR 6262, decided five days previously.
Cedar Point struck down a California law that granted union organizers a “right of access” to private farmland for up to three hours a day, 120 days a year. The Supreme Court ruled that the law created a physical hold in itself, in large part because it eliminated the owner’s right to exclude trespassers. The right to exclude, the court explained, is “of paramount importance to real estate ownership” and if the government infringes on this right – whether by “a regulation (or a law, or an ordinance or a decree) miscellaneous) ”, the government must pay compensation. The property right to be excluded cannot be “balanced”. Seen through the lens of Cedar Point, the Pakdels’ inability to evict their tenant throughout their life looks a lot like taking exclusion rights.
If the 9th Circuit doubles its refusal to consider the Pakdels’ claim because it arises from the application of a law rather than a ruling, then the case will be well placed for another trip to the Supreme Court and with property rights now established as deserving full constitutional protection, the odds are in favor of the Pakdels.
This editorial was originally published by Daily newspaper July 6, 2020.