Justia U.S. 4th Circuit Court of Appeals Opinion Summaries

Articles Posted in Real Estate & Property Law
by
Five adjacent Burtonsville, Maryland parcels are restricted from receiving sewer service. Several previous attempts to obtain approval of water and sewer category change requests were unsuccessful. The owners' alternative plan was to sell to a religious organization. They believed that land-use regulations must submit to “[c]hurch use [which] cannot be denied.” They entered into a contract with Canaan, contingent on the approval of the extension of a public sewer line for a new church. Such an extension required amendment of the Comprehensive Ten-Year Water Supply and Sewerage Systems Plan, which involves the Montgomery County Planning Board, the County Executive, the County Council, public hearings, and the Maryland Department of the Environment.Following denial of their requests, the owners sued under the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA) and the Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment. The Fourth Circuit affirmed the summary judgment rejection of the claims. The land has been bound by decades of regulations restricting development for both religious and non-religious purposes. The parties were aware of the difficulties in developing the property when they entered into the contract; they could not have a reasonable expectation of religious land use. The restrictions are rationally related to the government’s interest in protecting the region’s watershed. View "Canaan Christian Church v. Montgomery County" on Justia Law

by
This appeal involves a motion to enforce the final judgment and final order in a class action settlement made in the district court by the defendant in the class action, EQT, and class members, the Huey Plaintiffs. The Huey Plaintiffs subsequently filed suit in the Circuit Court of Wetzel County, West Virginia (the Wetzel County litigation) against EQT three years after the entry of the final judgment and final order, alleging that EQT trespassed on their mineral estate in violation of West Virginia statutory and common law. After the district court denied the final judgment and final order and declined to enjoin the Wetzel County litigation, EQT appealed.The Fourth Circuit affirmed the district court's denial of EQT's motion to enforce the final judgment order and final order, concluding that the district court did not err in declining to enjoin the Wetzel County litigation. The court found no error in the district court's assumption that the Huey Plaintiffs were class members bound by the Settlement Agreement. The court agreed with the district court's holding that the trespass claim in the Wetzel County litigation is not a royalty claim and not released by the Agreement. Finally, the court concluded that the district court did not abuse its discretion in not issuing an injunction and by finding that two exceptions to the Anti-Injunction Act, the "in aid of jurisdiction" and the relitigation exceptions, did not apply in this case. View "Huey v. Equitable Production Co." on Justia Law

by
In 2012, the Moores sued, claiming that Equitrans breached the parties’ right-of-way agreement and trespassed on the Moores’ land by laying two pipeline segments outside of the area specified in their agreement. A jury found that Equitrans either trespassed on the Moores’ West Virginia property or violated the right-of-way agreement but made no findings as to the proper remedy. While the Moores initially sought equitable relief (ejectment), a subsequent condemnation judgment in favor of Equitrans ultimately precluded such relief. Following several appeals, the district court allowed the Moores to pursue damages for breach-of-contract and trespass but denied leave to add a claim for intentional trespass. Later, the district court barred any claim for breach-of-contract damages. After excluding much of the Moores’ evidence of trespass damages, the court sua sponte entered judgment in favor of Equitrans.The Fourth Circuit vacated in part. The district court did not abuse its discretion in denying leave to amend, in making its motion in limine rulings, or in entering judgment in favor of Equitrans on contract damages. The court rejected a contention that the proper measure of trespass damages includes a portion of Equitrans’s profits. Because the Moores lacked sufficient notice that they needed to come forward with all evidence of trespass damages, the court vacated the portion of the judgment concerning trespass damages for procedural error and remanded. View "Moore v. Equitrans, L.P." on Justia Law

by
Victory Temple, affiliated with a Nigerian evangelical church, was founded in 1996. Victory’s membership grew from about 500 to more than 2,000 members. In 2018, Victory purchased the Property, intending to build a church with a seating capacity of up to 2,000. The zoning permits a church facility as a by-right use. An engineering firm concluded that building a church on the Property was entirely feasible. The Property was in the County’s water and sewer Category 5, an area planned for a future community water and sewer system, and required an upgrade to Category 4 to be developed. Victory submitted an application for a category change; the city manager recommended approval, emphasizing that many nearby parcels were already in Category 3. The Bowie City Council recommended denial. Residents expressed concerns about traffic safety, declining property values, and “light pollution.” The Transportation Committee voted to deny the Application. The County Council denied the Application.The Fourth Circuit upheld an award of declaratory and injunctive relief in favor of Victory under the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act, 42 U.S.C. 2000cc, The legislative amendment to the Water and Sewer Plan sought by Victory constitutes a land-use regulation subject to RLUIPA and the denial violated RLUIPA’s substantial burden provision. The County made “individualized assessments of the proposed uses for the property involved.” Assuming traffic safety constitutes a compelling governmental interest, the County failed to show how that its denial of the Application was the least restrictive means of furthering that interest. View "Redeemed Christian Church of God v. Prince George's County" on Justia Law

by
In 2008, Zito purchased a beachfront house and lot on Nags Head (a barrier island). In 2016, the house burned down. The lot is governed by North Carolina’s Coastal Area Management Act (CAMA): buildings with less than 5,000 square feet must be set back at least 60 feet or 30 times the local rate of erosion, whichever is farther, from the vegetation line. Buildings of less than 2,000 square feet built before June 1979 fall under a grandfather provision, requiring a setback of only 60 feet from the vegetation line. The Zito property qualifies for the grandfather provision but is set back only 12 feet from the vegetation line. In 2018, the coastline by the property eroded at an average rate of six feet per year. Experts indicate that coastal erosion and rising sea levels could cause the property to be underwater by 2024. The permit officer denied Zito’s application to rebuild The Coastal Resources Commission denied a variance, informing Zito of the right to appeal in state superior court.Zito filed suit in federal court, arguing that CAMA’s restrictions amounted to an unconstitutional taking. The Fourth Circuit affirmed the dismissal of the suit. The Commission qualifies as an arm of the state subject to the protection of sovereign immunity; the Eleventh Amendment bars Fifth Amendment taking claims against states in federal court where the state’s courts remain open to adjudicate such claims. View "Zito v. North Carolina Coastal Resources Commission" on Justia Law

by
Skidmore’s West Virginia home sits 70-80 feet west of Norfolk’s railroad track, across Loop Creek. In 2001, Norfolk installed a culvert to drain surface water from its tracks into Loop Creek near Skidmore’s home. According to Skidmore, the water streaming from the culvert caused soil erosion and threatened the foundation of her home. Skidmore sued Norfolk in state court, alleging negligence, private nuisance, and trespass.Norfolk obtained a survey and deeds revealing that, in 1903, Norfolk obtained a right of way extending across Loop Creek, over part of the land on the other side. Part of Skidmore’s house sits atop the land over which the right of way runs. Norfolk asserted an affirmative defense that Skidmore lacked standing because she had no right to exclude Norfolk from the land. Skidmore amended her complaint to add claims for adverse possession and prescriptive easement (quiet title claims). Norfolk removed the case to federal court, arguing that the Interstate Commerce Commission Termination Act completely preempts the quiet title claims. The district court dismissed for lack of subject matter jurisdiction.The Fourth Circuit vacated. While 49 U.S.C. 10501(b) “entirely displaces” Skidmore’s quiet title claims, a conclusion that complete preemption applies means that the court has jurisdiction over ostensibly state-law claims. On remand, the court must convert Skidmore’s quiet title claims into claims under the Termination Act and may permit Skidmore to amend her complaint to clarify the scope of her Termination Act claims. View "Skidmore v. Norfolk Southern Railway Co" on Justia Law

by
Appellants filed suit against Dorchester County, seeking compensation pursuant to the Takings Clause of the Fifth Amendment for the death of their bees. Appellants contend that the bees died after the County sprayed pesticide in an effort to kill mosquitos, and the bees' death amounted to a taking of appellants' private property.The Fourth Circuit affirmed the district court's grant of the County's motion for summary judgment, holding that there was no taking because the loss of appellants' bees was only an incidental consequence of the County's action. The court noted that the death of appellants' bees is undoubtedly a tragedy, but the court cannot conclude that it was the foreseeable or probable result of the County's action when it is a clear outlier in terms of collateral damage arising out of the County's mosquito abatement effort. Therefore, because the death of the bees was neither intended nor foreseeable, the Takings Clause does not require compensation. View "Yawn v. Dorchester County" on Justia Law

by
After a trial before a three-member land commission, the district court awarded compensation to Landowners after the government took an easement on their land. The district court awarded Landowners $4.4 million, apportioned attorney's fees and litigation costs, and split the cost of the commission.The Fourth Circuit affirmed the district court's award of just compensation and the splitting of the commission costs. The court concluded that the district court was within its discretion to weigh the evidence and to determine that the Landowners had shown a non-speculative demand for industrial and residential development in the reasonably near future. Therefore, the court could not say that the district court clearly erred in calculating its award of just compensation. The court also concluded that the district court has broad discretion in apportioning commission costs, and upheld its decision to do so. However, the court concluded that identifying the "prevailing party" for purposes of the attorney's fee award is a legal question that the court reviewed de novo. The court found that the district court erred in making that determination, concluding that because the government's $937,800 value is closer to the district court's final award of $4.4 million, the government, not the Landowners, is the "prevailing party" in this litigation. Accordingly, the court affirmed in part and reversed in part. View "United States v. 269 Acres Located in Beaufort County" on Justia Law

by
Plaintiffs filed suit alleging that pressure tactics used by Quicken Loans and TSI to influence home appraisers to raise appraisal values to obtain higher loan values on their homes constituted a breach of contract and unconscionable inducement under the West Virginia Consumer Credit and Protection Act. The district court granted summary judgment to plaintiffs.The Fourth Circuit concluded that class certification is appropriate and that plaintiffs are entitled to summary judgment on their claims for conspiracy and unconscionable inducement. However, the court concluded that the district court erred in its analysis of the breach-of-contract claim. The court explained that the district court will need to address defendants' contention that there were no damages suffered by those class members whose appraisals would have been the same whether or not the appraisers were aware of the borrowers' estimates of value—which one might expect, for example, if a borrower's estimate of value was accurate. The court agreed with plaintiffs that the covenant of good faith and fair dealing applies to the parties' contract, but concluded that it cannot by itself sustain the district court's decision at this stage. The district court may consider the implied covenant of good faith and fair dealing to the extent that it is relevant for evaluating Quicken Loans' performance of the contracts. Accordingly, the court affirmed in part and vacated and remanded in part. View "Alig v. Quicken Loans Inc." on Justia Law

by
The Fourth Circuit affirmed the district court's ruling that three local zoning ordinances are constitutional under the Takings Clause and the Due Process Clause, and that Clayland's equitable claims are moot. In this case, Bill No. 1214 reduced the permissible density of residential properties from four units per acre to one unit per two acres and prohibited subdividing any existing parcel into more than one additional lot. Bill No. 1229 established seven tier classifications related to "the type of subdivision and the kind of wastewater treatment system planned for each subdivision type." Bill No. 1257 extended Bill No. 1214's restrictions on Village Center zones (including the decreased density of residential units and the limitations on new subdivisions) until Talbot County "adopt[ed] . . . comprehensive rezoning and land use regulations regarding density . . . pursuant to the County's comprehensive plan."The court concluded that Bill Nos. 1214 and 1257 do not constitute a taking where the balance of the Penn Central factors ultimately favors the County. The court explained that Bill Nos. 1214 and 1257 were public-benefit regulations that did not deprive Clayland of all development potential and—most significantly, and perhaps even decisively—did not divest Clayland of any vested rights. The court also concluded that Bill Nos. 1214, 1257, and 1229 do not constitute a substantive due process violation. Finally, the court concluded that Clayland's equitable claims are moot. View "Clayland Farm Enterprises, LLC v. Talbot County" on Justia Law