Justia U.S. 3rd Circuit Court of Appeals Opinion Summaries

Articles Posted in Real Estate & Property Law
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Venoco operated a drilling rig off the coast of Santa Barbara, transporting oil and gas to its Onshore Facility for processing. Venoco did not own the Offshore Facility but leased it from the California Lands Commission. Venoco owned the Onshore Facility with air permits to use it. Following a 2015 pipeline rupture, Venoco filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy and abandoned its leases, relinquishing all rights in the Offshore Facility.Concerned about public safety and environmental risks, the Commission took over decommissioning the rig and plugging the wells, paying Venoco $1.1 million per month to continue operating the Offshore and Onshore Facilities. After a third-party contractor took over operations, the Commission agreed to pay for use of the Onshore Facility. The Commission, as Venoco’s creditor, filed a $130 million claim for reimbursement of plugging and decommissioning costs. Before the confirmation of the liquidation plan, Venoco and the Commission unsuccessfully negotiated a potential sale of the Onshore Facility to the Commission. The Commission stopped making payments, arguing it could continue using the Onshore Facility without payment under its police power.After the estates’ assets were transferred to a liquidation trust, the Trustee filed an adversary proceeding, claiming inverse condemnation, against California. The district court affirmed the bankruptcy court’s rejection of California's assertion of Eleventh Amendment sovereign immunity. The Third Circuit affirmed. By ratifying the Bankruptcy Clause of the U.S. Constitution, states waived their sovereign immunity defense in proceedings that further a bankruptcy court’s exercise of its jurisdiction over the debtor's and the estate's property. View "In re Venoco, LLC" on Justia Law

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A Compact between Pennsylvania and New Jersey created the Delaware River Joint Toll Bridge Commission, which is authorized to “acquire, own, use, lease, operate, and dispose of real property and interest in real property, and to make improvements,” and to "exercise all other powers . . . reasonably necessary or incidental to the effectuation of its authorized purposes . . . except the power to levy taxes or assessments.” The Commission undertook to replace the Scudder Falls Bridge, purchased land near the bridge in Pennsylvania, and broke ground on a building to house the Commission’s staff in a single location. Pennsylvania Department of Labor and Industry inspectors observed the construction; the Commission never applied for a building permit as required under the Department’s regulations. The Commission asserted that it was exempt from Pennsylvania’s regulatory authority. The Department threatened the Commission’s elevator subcontractor with regulatory sanctions for its involvement in the project. The Commission sought declaratory and injunctive relief.After rejecting an Eleventh Amendment argument, the Third Circuit upheld an injunction prohibiting the Department from seeking to inspect or approve the elevators and from further impeding, interfering, or delaying the contractors. Pennsylvania unambiguously ceded some of its sovereign authority through the Compact. The fact that both states expressly reserved their taxing power—but not other powers—indicates that they did not intend to retain the authority to enforce building safety regulations. View "Delaware River Joint Toll Bridge Commission v. Secretary Pennsylvania Department of Labor and Industry" on Justia Law

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Palisade sought to build a 150-bed for-profit assisted living facility, which would provide supportive services to memory care patients 0n a 4.96-acre parcel located partially in the city and partially in the borough. The city opposes its construction because the property is in a “one-family residence” zoning district. Palisade argued that the zoning ordinance discriminated on its face against individuals with disabilities by not permitting assisted living facilities as of right in the single-family district and by explicitly allowing them in only one zoning district. The district court granted Palisade a preliminary injunction.The Third Circuit vacated. The zoning ordinance, by failing to include “assisted living facilities” among its permitted uses in the single-family district, but explicitly allowing them in a different district, does not facially discriminate against the disabled in violation of the Fair Housing Amendments Act, 42 U.S.C. 3604. Failure to permit a land use as of right is not tantamount to an express prohibition. There is no indication that disabled status, rather than the building size or the commercial character of the development, is the dispositive trait, singled out for different treatment. The court noted that Palisade did not seek a variance. View "431 East Palisade Avenue Real Estate LLC v. City of Englewood" on Justia Law

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The Baptistes filed suit on behalf of a class of homeowner-occupants and renters (about 8,400 households) claiming interference with the use and enjoyment of their homes and loss in property value caused by noxious odors and other air contaminants emanating from the 224-acre Bethlehem Landfill. The Third Circuit reversed the dismissal of the suit. While everyone in the community—including visitors, commuters, and residents—may suffer from having to breathe polluted air in public spaces, the Baptistes have identified cumulative harms that are unique to residents, such as the inability to use and enjoy their outdoor spaces. These injuries are above and beyond any injury to the public; the Baptistes sufficiently alleged a “particular damage” to sustain a private claim for public nuisance. They also stated a claim for private nuisance. Pennsylvania law does not reject a private nuisance claim on the ground that the property affected was too far from the source of the alleged nuisance. Nor does Pennsylvania law condition an individual’s right to recover private property damages on a nuisance theory on the size of the nuisance or the number of persons harmed, as opposed to the nature of the rights affected or the degree of the harm suffered. The question remains whether the Baptistes have sufficiently pleaded a cognizable injury to state an independent negligence claim. View "Baptiste v. Bethlehem Landfill Co." on Justia Law

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Beginning around 1915, NPRC operated a Jersey City chemical plant, turning chromite ore into chromium chemicals for dyeing cloth and tanning leather. The process generated hazardous chemical waste that eventually seeped into the soil and groundwater. During both World Wars, the production of chromium chemicals was regulated. During World War II, the government designated chromium chemicals as “critical” war materials and implemented controls concerning labor conditions, supplies, subsidies, and pricing. In 1944, the Chemicals Bureau officially recommended that producers switch to a quicker, more wasteful process. Government orders did not direct how the ores were to be processed, how the chemicals were to be made, or how waste should be handled. PPG purchased the site in 1954 and processed chromium chemicals there until 1963, using essentially the same processes as NPRC, including stockpiling the waste outdoors. PPG has spent $367 million to remediate the site and other contaminated areas.PPG sued under the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act (CERCLA), 42 U.S.C. 9607, seeking recovery and contribution for costs associated with cleanup. After four years of discovery, the district court granted the government summary judgment. The Third Circuit affirmed. Governmental involvement with the plant during the wars did not make it an “operator” liable for the cleanup costs associated with the waste. Governmental actions in relation to the plant were consistent with general wartime influence over the industry and did not extend to control over pollution-related activities. View "PPG Industries Inc. v. United States" on Justia Law

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UGI builds natural gas pipelines. It obtained authorization to construct and operate an underground pipeline along 34.4 miles of land in Pennsylvania under the Natural Gas Act, 15 U.S.C. 717, The Landowners rejected UGI’s offers of compensation for rights of way, so UGI sought orders of condemnation. UGI prevailed; only the amount of compensation remained. The Landowners’ expert set the before-taking value of the land by comparing properties in the area and estimating what each is worth relative to the market but, in estimating the post-taking property values, the expert relied on his own “damaged goods theory,” drawing on his experience working in his grandfather’s appliance shop. The expert cited the impact on real estate values from the Three Mile Island nuclear incident in 1979, the Exxon Valdez Alaskan oil spill in 1989, and assorted leaking underground storage tanks. The expert’s reports contain no data relating to those incidents. The district court agreed “that some form of ‘stigma’ attaches to the property as a whole” and adjusted the awards accordingly. The Third Circuit vacated. Rule 702 requires reliable expert testimony that fits the proceedings. The expert testimony presented by the Landowners bound only to speculation and conjecture, not good science or other “good grounds.” View "UGI Sunbury LLC v. Permanent Easement for 1.7575 Acres" on Justia Law

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Cranbury Development bought a long-abandoned weapons-manufacturing facility that the U.S. military and others contaminated. The New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection (NJDEP) ordered the parties responsible for the contamination (Cranbury, Maxxam, and the U.S. Navy) to memorialize their commitment to perform remediation. The Navy refused to take part. In 2005, Cranbury and Maxxam entered into a Consent Order with NJDEP, agreeing to clean up the site; NJDEP agreed not to sue them if they complied. That settlement let Cranbury and Maxxam seek contribution 10 from other polluters (like the Navy) while immunizing them from such claims. In 2006, Brick Yard bought the site, planning to redevelop it into commercial warehouses, and sought to assume Cranbury Development’s cleanup obligations. Brick Yard agreed to join the existing agreement, substituting for Cranbury Development. During the cleanup, problems arose. Brick Yard claims to have spent $50 million in the process. In 2015, Brick Yard sued the federal government, seeking cost recovery and contribution under the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act (CERCLA), 42 U.S.C. 9607(a), 9613(f)(1). The Third Circuit affirmed the rejection of the claims. The settlement with the state gave Brick Yard immunity from contribution claims, which extinguished its cost-recovery claim. The contribution claim against the federal government is untimely because Brick Yard sued nine years after joining the settlement. View "Cranbury Brick Yard, LLC v. United States" on Justia Law

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Planned Parenthood was the site of numerous clashes between opponents and advocates of abortion rights, including bomb threats, vandalism, and blockades. The police deployed an overtime detail to maintain order. After Pittsburgh was declared a financially distressed municipality in 2003, the detail was discontinued. Police were called as needed. The clinic reported an “obvious escalation.” The City Council held hearings on proposed legislation. Many witnesses expounded on the competing interests and expressed a desire to protect both free speech and access to healthcare, including abortions. A member of the police overtime detail attested that the criminal laws were not adequate. The Ordinance states that “[n]o person or persons shall knowingly congregate, patrol, picket or demonstrate” in a 15-foot “buffer zone” outside the entrance of any hospital or healthcare facility. Plaintiffs engage in leafletting and “peaceful . . . one-on-one conversations” conducted “at a normal conversational level and distance” intended to dissuade listeners from obtaining an abortion. The city asserted that the Ordinance applies to this “sidewalk counseling,” The Third Circuit affirmed summary judgment in favor of the city, concluding that the Ordinance does not cover sidewalk counseling and thus does not impose a significant burden on speech. The Ordinance prohibits “congregat[ing],” “patrol[ling],” “picket[ing],” and “demonstrat[ing],” saying nothing about leafletting or one-on-one conversations. Nor does it mention a particular topic or purpose. With respect to the listed activities, the Ordinance is “narrowly tailored to serve a significant governmental interest.” View "Bruni v. City of Pittsburgh" on Justia Law

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The Authority's Mohegan Sun Arena in Wilkes-Barre holds up to 10,000 people and hosts athletic and other commercial entertainment events. The Arena is set back and fenced apart from the public road. Patrons drive on an access road, park in an Arena parking lot, and then walk on a concrete concourse to the “East Gate” and “West Gate” entrances. “All persons are welcome to express their views” at the Arena; protesters must stand within “designated area[s]” on the concourse and “[h]andouts can only be distributed from within” those areas. The designated areas are two “rectangular enclosure[s] constructed from bike racks,” next to the Gates. The policy bans protesters from using profanity or artificial voice amplification. LCA, an animal rights group wanting to protest circus events, sued under 42 U.S.C. 1983.The trial court found that the Authority was “a public governmental entity acting under color of state law” and entered a preliminary injunction that allowed up to 20 protesters to distribute literature and talk to patrons within a circumscribed section of the concourse; protesters could not block ingress or egress. LCA protested under those terms at 2016-2017 circus performances. At a subsequent trial, LCA introduced evidence that protesters in the "designated areas" attracted little attention and videos showing nonconfrontational interactions with no abnormal congestion. The Arena expressed concerns about unruly protestors and argued that the location condition minimizes congestion and security risks. The court found all three restrictions violated the First Amendment.The Third Circuit reversed in part. The concourse’s function is to facilitate pedestrian movement; a policy sensibly designed to minimize interference with that flow is not unreasonable. The Arena did not establish that the bans on profanity and voice amplification are reasonable. View "Pomicter v. Luzerne County Convention Center" on Justia Law

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Arianna Holding Company purchased a tax lien on a piece of property owned by the Hacklers and eventually obtained title to the Hacklers’ property via foreclosure proceedings. Shortly after Arianna obtained title, the Hacklers filed for Chapter 13 bankruptcy and sought to void the transfer of the title as preferential, 11 U.S.C. 547(b). The Bankruptcy Court and the district court ruled in favor of the Hacklers. The Third Circuit affirmed. The title transfer meets 547(b)’s requirements for avoidance. The transfer was made to or for the benefit of a creditor, was made for an antecedent debt, was made while the debtor was insolvent, was made on or within 90 days before filing for bankruptcy, and enabled the creditor to receive more than it would have received in a Chapter 7 liquidation proceeding. The petition and schedules listed the value of the property at $335,000, which far exceeded the value of the liens against the property; Arianna filed a proof of claim for $42,561.21 and other liens totaled no more than $89,000. The Hacklers’ Chapter 13 plan proposed to pay Arianna’s claim in full. Federalism concerns raised by Arianna cannot overcome the plain language of the Code. View "In Re: Hackler" on Justia Law