Monday, August 30, 2010

Equal protection claims over zoning decisions are very difficult to win

Take a good look at the fellas who sit on your Town Board. You may think they are clowns, but they have a tremendous amount of authority to make decisions that affect our everyday lives, including authority to shape zoning decisions. Suing them in federal court is close to impossible. Particularly under the Equal Protection Clause.

The case is Ruston v. Town Board of Skaneateles, decided on July 8. The Ruston family owned land in upstate New York. They wanted to subdivide it. Local authorities said no. So the family sued under the Equal Protection Clause. At the time, this must have seemed like a good idea. In Village of Willowbrook v. Olech, 528 U.S. 562 (2000), the Supreme Court said that the Equal Protection Clause recognizes some lawsuits against municipalities if the plaintiffs were singled out in the provision of community services. This was called "class of one" litigation, which requires proof that the town or village intentionally treated the plaintiffs differently than similarly-situated (or comparable) residents without any rational basis.

While the Rustons had high hopes when they brought this action in Northern District of New York, this case dies a quick death in the Court of Appeals (Jacobs, McLaughlin and Sack), which takes a moment to bury a seven year-old precedent, DeMuria v. Hawkes, 328 F.3d 704 (2d Cir. 2003), which made it easier to bring these cases. But a lot has happened in seven years, in particular, the Supreme Court's ruling in Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 129 S.Ct. 1937 (2009), which requires plaintiffs to plead in their complaints a "plausible" claim for relief, a legal standard which for all intents and purposes wiped out the tried-and-true "notice pleading" requirement, which placed upon plaintiffs a minimal burden in moving their cases forward.

The Rustons' case against the Town is dismissed because their "class-of-one" equal protection claim does not allege enough facts to support the claim that the Town favored other, similarly-situated landowners. Their claim against the Village Board on similar grounds does allege factual particulars, but the property owners favored by the Village are not similarly-situated to the Rustons. In other words, these other properties -- including a house built in 1987, a country-club that was renovated in the 1990s, an luxury spa and a large commercial building -- are not sufficiently comparable to the Rustons, who wanted to subdivide their property to build a 14-unit subdivision. Under the class-of-one cases, the Rustons have to show the court that they were so comparable to the favored landowners that the municipalities could only have treated them differently for utterly irrational reasons. Since this lawsuit on its face does not make that allegation, the complaint is dismissed.

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