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Dahlen v. House

March 24, 2010


Appeal from the United States District Court for the Southern District of Iowa.

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Gruender, Circuit Judge.

Submitted: January 14, 2010

Before GRUENDER and SHEPHERD, Circuit Judges, and LANGE,*fn1 District Judge.

This case is the latest front in the protracted legal battle over a homeless shelter that appellee Shelter House plans to build on a plot of land adjacent to the Dahlens' property in Iowa City, Iowa. Michael and Janet Dahlen, along with Michael McNiel ("the Dahlens"), brought suit under 42 U.S.C. § 1983, claiming a violation of the Fifth Amendment's Takings Clause and requesting damages as well as an injunction to prevent the planned construction. Because we find that the controversy is not ripe, we affirm the district court's dismissal for lack of jurisdiction.


Shelter House, a non-profit organization, provides housing and other services to homeless people. In 2004, Shelter House began planning to construct a new homeless shelter on property adjacent to the Dahlens' mobile home park. The Iowa City Board of Adjustment granted Shelter House a special zoning exception to allow them to build the shelter. The Dahlens and others challenged this special exception in Iowa state court. The Iowa Supreme Court ultimately upheld the grant of the special exception in March 2008. Bontrager Auto Serv., Inc. v. Iowa City Bd. of Adjustment, 748 N.W.2d 483 (Iowa 2008).

A few months later, in August 2008, the Dahlens filed this § 1983 suit, alleging that the special exception, along with the building permit they anticipated Iowa City would issue to Shelter House, violated the Dahlens' constitutional right to due process. Shelter House and the other defendants filed a motion to dismiss for lack of jurisdiction under the Rooker-Feldman doctrine. See Lance v. Dennis, 546 U.S. 459, 463 (2006) ("[U]nder what has come to be known as the Rooker-Feldman doctrine, lower federal courts are precluded from exercising appellate jurisdiction over final state-court judgments.").

While the motion to dismiss was pending, Shelter House received approval of its site plan from the Iowa City Planning and Zoning Commission. The Dahlens then successfully moved to amend their complaint, abandoning their due process challenge to the special exception and building permit and instead challenging the approval of the site plan. In their amended complaint, the Dahlens claim that their mobile home park has continuously occupied small portions of the property on which Shelter House plans to build its homeless shelter and that they therefore own these portions through adverse possession. The Dahlens argue that Iowa City's inclusion of their property within the site plan constitutes a violation of the Takings Clause. See U.S. Const. amend. V ("[N]or shall private property be taken for public use, without just compensation."). Shelter House and the other defendants again moved to dismiss, arguing that the takings claim was not ripe and that the district court therefore lacked jurisdiction.*fn2 The district court*fn3 agreed and granted the defendants' motion to dismiss. The Dahlens filed this appeal.


In reviewing a motion to dismiss, "we assume the truth of the facts as alleged in [the] complaint." Fitzgerald v. Barnstable Sch. Comm., 555 U.S. ---, 129 S.Ct. 788, 792 (2009). In particular, we assume for the purposes of this appeal that the Dahlens have in fact acquired the portions of property included in the site plan through adverse possession.*fn4 Additionally, the Dahlens do not dispute that Shelter House intends to build a shelter for homeless people on the property adjacent to their mobile home park.

Our analysis begins, as it must, with the question of jurisdiction. See Demore v. Kim, 538 U.S. 510, 516 (2003). We review the issue of jurisdiction de novo. See McKenzie v. City of White Hall, 112 F.3d 313, 316 (8th Cir. 1997). The U.S. Supreme Court's decision in Williamson County Regional Planning Commission v. Hamilton Bank, 473 U.S. 172 (1985), governs the jurisdictional question of ripeness with respect to takings claims, setting out two requirements: (1) there must be a "final decision" with respect to the property at issue, id. at 186, and (2) the aggrieved party must "seek compensation through the procedures the State has provided for doing so," id. at 194. We limit our analysis to the second requirement of Williamson, whether the Dahlens have sought compensation through the procedures Iowa provides. Failure to satisfy this requirement alone means that their claim is not ripe and that federal courts lack jurisdiction to entertain their claim. See Snaza v. City of Saint Paul, 548 F.3d 1178, 1181-82 (8th Cir. 2008).

The Dahlens do not claim that they have sought compensation through Iowa's inverse condemnation procedures, the method Iowa provides for obtaining compensation for an alleged taking. See Kingsway Cathedral v. Iowa Dep't of Transp., 711 N.W.2d 6, 9 (Iowa 2006) (outlining Iowa's inverse condemnation procedures). Nor do they argue that Iowa's inverse condemnation procedures are inadequate for obtaining compensation for takings generally. See Williamson, 473 U.S. at 194-95 (holding that property owners must use adequate state compensation procedures before bringing takings claims). Instead, the Dahlens argue that they need not resort to inverse condemnation procedures because the alleged taking was a private taking-one done without a justifying public purpose. See Hawaii Hous. Auth. v. Midkiff, 467 U.S. 229, 245 (1984)("A purely private taking could not withstand the scrutiny of the public use requirement; it would serve no legitimate purpose of government and would thus be void."). Because no amount of compensation can remedy a private taking, resort to inverse condemnation in such cases is unnecessary. McKenzie, 112 F.3d at 317 (holding that property owners "need not pursue state procedures for a claim that the City took [their property] without a justifying public purpose, however, because this is a Constitutional violation even if compensation is paid."). Since Iowa law does not provide adequate procedures to remedy the allegedly private taking, the Dahlens argue they have satisfied the second Williamson requirement.

The Dahlens' argument that resort to inverse condemnation is unnecessary with respect to this taking proceeds in several steps. First, they argue that we should determine whether the alleged taking was a private taking-that is, whether it was done "without a justifying public purpose," McKenzie, 112 F.3d at 317-by applying Iowa's statutory definition of "public purpose," see Iowa Code § 6A.22,*fn5 rather than using the meaning of "public purpose" developed in Fifth Amendment takings jurisprudence, see Kelo v. City of New London, 545 U.S. 469, 485 (2005)(describing the "traditionally broad understanding of public purpose" used in Fifth Amendment jurisprudence). Then, after dismissing as inapplicable the majority of § 6A.22(2)(a)'s definitions, the Dahlens focus on § 6A.22(2)(a)(1), which they urge us to interpret narrowly to require general public access to the property or government ownership of it. Next, they argue that under this narrow reading, Shelter House's planned homeless shelter lacks a "justifying public purpose," since the shelter will not allow general public access and will be owned by Shelter House, a non-governmental entity. Therefore, the argument goes, Iowa City's approval of the site plan was a private taking, and under McKenzie, the Dahlens need not resort to inverse condemnation procedures to have a ripe claim under Williamson.

We focus on the first step of the Dahlens' argument, analysis of which reveals the flaw in their claim.*fn6 The Dahlens, in essence, are attempting to bootstrap their Iowa statutory claim into a federal constitutional claim. Under their view, violations of ยง 6A.22, ipso facto, are also violations of the Fifth Amendment's Takings Clause, regardless of whether the taking satisfies the "traditionally broad understanding of public purpose" developed in Fifth Amendment jurisprudence, Kelo, 545 U.S. at 485. We ...

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