Friday, December 16, 2016

When can you sue when the government screws you over?

The everyday man knows something about the law, but not much. It's not his fault. Lawyers know the law the way mechanics know car engines. We suspect the law was broken from time to time, but the everyday man does not know for sure. All he knows is that he got screwed. By the government or by his employer,  but he got screwed. There is a constitutional doctrine for these cases. We call it "class of one" equal protection cases.

The case is Beard v. Town of Monroe, a summary order decided on December 6. The Town came down hard against Beard but did not do the same with his two neighbors. Beard uses his land to operate numerous business, including excavation, trucking and hauling, salvage, demolition and plowing. He's got hydraulic excavators, three plow trucks, some trailers, a dump truck and other stuff. After a neighbor complained about Beard's property, the Town enforced the zoning code against him. But two other property owners were left alone. One guy, Twombly, uses his property to grow trees and sell compost and mulch. Another guy, Smith, uses his land for logging, selling topsoil and raises cows, chickens and other animals. He also has an excavation business. The point is that these three men each run different businesses on their land. The Town went after Beard but not the others.

The "class of one" theory of equal protection arises from a Supreme Court case, Village of Willobrook v. Olech, 528 U.S. 562 (2000). It allows people to sue under the Equal Protection Clause when they get screwed by the government. That's not proper legal language, but you get the idea. It's a residual way to sue when you are aggrieved by the government and no other constitutional theories apply. But the courts have worked toward narrowing the scope of "class of one" over the years, almost as if they realized that a broad theory of liability would open the courthouse doors to every grievance imaginable. (If you are victimized by an arbitrary or capricious governmental action, you can always sue in state court under CPLR Article 78). Nowadays, courts are looking for "an extremely high degree of similarly between [plaintiffs] and the persons to whom they compare themselves."

Beard loses the case because Twombly and Smith are not "similarly situated" to him. In other words, the Second Circuit (Walker, Chin and Carney) says their situations are too different from Beard's. They use their property for different purposes than Beard. Since the court finds a logical way to distinguish Beard from his neighbors, he has no "class of one" case.

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