Thursday, October 23, 2014

Rehabilitation facility must exhaust administrative requirements before suing in federal court

Litigation can be so exciting that sometimes we can't wait to file the lawsuit and get started on discovery, motion practice and all the other lawsuit-related activities that make life worth living. But sometimes you have to wait to exhaust state law procedures before diving head first into federal court. This case reminds us of how that all works.

The case is Sunrise Detox, LLC v. City of White Plains, decided on October 2. Sunrise Detox was a proposed drug rehabilitation facility in White Plains. In the face of public opposition to the facility, the City Council determined that the neighborhood was not properly zoned for it. The City fathers told the proprietors they could seek a variance or appeal the determination to the Zoning Board of Appeals. Rather than do that, plaintiff filed a federal lawsuit, claiming the adverse determination violated the Americans with Disabilities Act. The district court dismissed the case as unripe, and the Court of Appeals (Jacobs, Sack and Lynch) affirms.

On ripeness grounds, courts have held for years that landowners who challenge zoning determinations in court must obtain a final decision from the municipality. The reason for this is that allowing the municipality to finally rule on the dispute can chrystalize the issues, shed further light on the issues or even put an end to the matter if the landowner prevails before final municipal authority. The Court of Appeals has extended this rule to cases challenging local decisions under the First Amendment speech and religiom clauses and the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act. The Court now extends the ripeness requirement to ADA claims.

Plaintiff tries to get around the ripeness rules by arguing that it was the victim of intentional discrimination forbidden by federal law, and that "the injury from such discrimination is experienced as soon as the official acts with a discriminatory motivation." The Court of Appeals says "this argument is not without appeal." But the Court does not decide whether a property owner who claims that a local official vetoed his project for discriminatory reasons can immediately sue in federal court; it declines to rule on that issue because plaintiff does not seek compensatory damages from the official who made that decision. In any event, "only after Sunrise completes the process will it be known whether the allegedly discriminatory decision of the official had any effect at all on Sunrise's application."

The Court offers the following guidelines: 

We think, therefore, that a plaintiff alleging discrimination in the context of a land‐use dispute is subject to the final‐decision requirement unless he can show that he suffered some injury independent of the challenged land‐use decision. Thus, for example, a plaintiff need not await a final decision to challenge a zoning policy that is discriminatory on its face, or the manipulation of a zoning process out of discriminatory animus to avoid a final decision. In those cases, ʺpursuit of a further administrative decision would do nothing to further define [the] injury,ʺ and the ʺclaim should not be subject to the application of the Williamson ripeness test.ʺ
The plaintiff cannot meet that test. Although the commissioner said the properly was not zoned for the facility, "in light of administrative avenues for relief outlined in the zoning ordinance and the commissioner's letter, we conclude that neither of these acts give rise to an injury independent of the city's ultimate land-use decision." Since Sunrise cannot prove that the Court can look to a final and definitive position from the City over its application, this case is not ripe for judicial review. 

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