The Ripeness Mess Revisited, or, Is There Life After Death?

         We note two important inverse condemnation opinions that have just come down from the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit. They are Guggenheim v. City of Goleta, 2009 U.S. App. LEXIS 21313, filed on September 28, 2009, and Los Altos El Granada Investors v. City of Capitola, 2009 U.S. App. LEXIS 22044, filed on October 7, 2009. They deal with takings claims arising from mobile home park rent control ordinances, they hold the ripeness requirement to be prudential rather than jurisdictional, and they reach the merits of the taking claims, holding in favor of the plaintiff-owners. 

         Guggenheim bases its decision on the fact that the rent control ordinance in question effected a transfer of nearly 90% of value from the mobile home park owners to their tenants, thus constituting a taking. The real significance of this case lies in the court’s thorough analysis of the ripeness doctrine that has so often prevented aggrieved property owners from having their federal constitutional claims determined either in federal court, or at all.

          The gimmick used to accomplish this astonishing result, has been to begin with the rule of the Williamson County case that requires the owners to sue first in state court, with their federal claim being deemed unripe until after the state courts deny them compensation. But then, after the owners have duly jumped through this procedural hoop and litigated their taking claim in state court, federal courts would dismiss their now-ripe federal claim on the grounds that the state court adjudication against them was res judicata. The result was that their otherwise perfectly good federal constitutional claim became barred at the very moment it became ripe for adjudication in federal court. You can read all about it, if you have the stomach for it, in Michael M. Berger and Gideon Kanner, Shell Game! You Can’t Get There From Here: Supreme Court Ripeness Jurisprudence in Takings Cases at Long Last Reaches the Self-Parody Stage, 36 Urban Lawyer 671 (Fall 2004). 

          The Los Altos El Granada case, deals with the property owners’ right to reserve their federal claims for decision by federal courts, when they have to sue first in state court. In this case the California State Courts had the effrontery to strike the owners’ reservation of their federal rights, deeming it “irrelevant,” and thereby purporting to deprive the federal courts of their ability to hear the owners’ federal claims. Nothing doing, held the U.S. court of appeals – the state courts’ action in doing so could not deprive the federal courts of their jurisdiction, and therefore was of no effect. 

          Both these cases are elaborately reasoned, and we recommend that readers interested in regulatory inverse condemnation law, particularly in its procedural aspects, read both these opinions with care.

Update: For commentary on this development, see the inversecondemnation.com blog by Robert Thomas. You can get to it at http://www.inversecondemnation.com/ — see the post of October 7, 2009.

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