Murr v. Wisconsin

Following is the case brief for Murr v. Wisconsin, 137 S. Ct. 1933 (2017)

Case Summary of Murr v. Wisconsin:

  • Petitioners received two adjacent lots of land from their parents at two different times.
  • They wanted to sell one lot, but a Wisconsin regulation prohibited the sale of the one lot.  That was because the lot was adjacent to the other lot they owned, and because it had less than one acre suitable for development.
  • Petitioners sued, claiming that the law constituted an improper taking of the one lot.
  • The lower courts all found for the State of Wisconsin, in favor of the law prohibiting the sale.
  • The U.S. Supreme Court agreed with the lower courts.  It held that the lower courts were correct in treating both lots as one single parcel for takings purposes.  Based on many factors, the lots should reasonably be treated as one, and petitioners did not lose all economic benefit from the lot they wanted to sell.

Murr v. Wisconsin Case Brief

Statement of the Facts:

Petitioners received one lot of land (Lot F) from their parents in 1994, and received the adjacent lot (Lot E) one year later.  The state and local regulations prohibited the use or sale of adjacent lots under common ownership as separate building sites unless they have at least one acre of land suitable for development.  Lots E and F each have less than one acre suitable for development, therefore they could not be sold separately under the law.

Petitioners wanted to sell Lot E separately.  The local Board of Adjustment denied the request.  The state courts affirmed the denial, noting that the law effectively merged the lots so they could only be sold together.  Petitioners then sued, claiming that the regulations constituted an unlawful taking, effectively depriving them use of Lot E.

Procedural History:

  • The County Circuit Court granted summary judgment for the State of Wisconsin.
  • The Wisconsin State Court of Appeals affirmed, finding that the merging of the lots was not a taking.
  • The U.S. Supreme Court granted certiorari.

Issue and Holding:

Did a law merging two adjacent properties constitute an unlawful taking?  No.

Judgment:

The decision of the Court of Appeals of Wisconsin is affirmed.

Rule of Law or Legal Principle Applied:

In a Takings Clause analysis, property lines are not the only factor to consider.  Rather, a court should look at the reasonable expectations of property ownership to see whether an owner would anticipate that land would be treated as separate lots or one parcel.

Reasoning:

Court precedent has provided two guidelines for when a law or regulation constitutes a taking.  First, a regulation that denies all economic benefit from land will require compensation under the Takings Clause.  Second, the takings inquiry must look at many factors, including

  1. Economic impact on the claimant,
  2. The extent to which the regulation interferes with investment-backed expectations, and
  3. The character of the government action.

Accordingly, flexibility is the touchstone of the Takings Clause inquiry, and state property lines do not always control.

In this case, looking at all the relevant factors, Lots E and F should be viewed as a single parcel.  The merger regulation indicates that owners should reasonably expect the lots to be treated as one.  The physical attributes of the land suggest that they would be regulated as one.  There is more economic benefit by treating them as one parcel, and petitioners have not been deprived of the economic benefit of Lot E, when combined with Lot F.  Therefore, they have not suffered a taking.

Concurring and Dissenting Opinions:

Dissenting Opinion (Roberts):

The Court’s bottom line conclusion – that petitioners can still make good use of both lots – is not troubling.  What is troubling is the fact that the Court’s decision does not respect the delineated property lines established by the state, but rather defines “private property” as turning on an elaborate multi-factored test.  The Court should stick with the property lines as defined by the state when engaging in the takings analysis.

Dissenting Opinion (Thomas):

The Court should take a fresh look at takings jurisprudence to see whether it can be grounded in the original meaning of the Takings Clause of the Fifth Amendment or the Privileges or Immunities Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.

Significance:

Murr v. Wisconsin is important because it leaves lower courts having to make a fact-sensitive inquiry into private property rights under the Takings Clause.  The Court’s decision gives some guidance, but it might result in unpredictable outcomes for litigants, which is never good when dealing with property rights.

Student Resources:

Read the Full Court Opinion

Listen to the Oral Arguments

Washington Post article critical of the Court’s decision

 

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