Milton v. United States, No. 21-1131 (Fed. Cir. 2022)Annotate this Case
Following floods at Houston’s Buffalo Bayou watershed, the federal government built the Barker and Addicks Dams. By 1963, each dam held a large reservoir with gated outflowing conduits. The Army Corps of Engineers’ 2012 Water Control Manual provides that if an inch of rain falls within a 24- hour period or if downstream flooding is expected, the Corps must close the floodgates. If “inflow and pool elevation conditions dictate,” the Corps releases water according to a schedule. The reservoirs were empty before Hurricane Harvey made landfall. On August 25, 2017, the Corps closed the floodgates; more than 30 inches of water poured onto the city in four days. The Corps released water. Some downstream properties were flooded for more than 11 days, some at more than eight feet above the first finished floor.
Suits alleging that the flooding constituted an uncompensated, physical taking of property were split. In the Upstream Sub-Docket, the Claims Court found that plaintiffs were owners of land not subject to flowage easements and had valid property interests and that the government flooded plaintiffs’ properties and engaged in a taking. The court dismissed the Downstream Sub-Docket claims, finding that the owners did not articulate a cognizable property interest; “neither Texas law nor federal law creates a protected property interest in perfect flood control.” The court reasoned that the plaintiffs acquired their properties subject to the superior right of the Corps to engage in flood mitigation.
The Federal Circuit reversed. The government is not immune from suit under the Flood Control Act of 1928, 33 U.S.C. 702c. There is no blanket rule under Texas law that property rights are held subject to owners’ expectations on acquisition. The Supreme Court has rejected the notion that private property is subject to “unbridled, uncompensated qualification under the police power."
The court issued a subsequent related opinion or order on July 11, 2022.